The View from the Dream Eye Center
My entire life I have depended on contact lenses to see. This did not bother me too much in America, but once I moved to Korea and started traveling around the world, I realized the huge inconvenience of contact lenses. You always need to carry solution and a contact case and sometimes you forget. This often caused me to sleep in my lenses, which besides for being extremely uncomfortable, is also dangerous while traveling in places with far from perfect sanitary conditions. Fortunately, Seoul is famous for performing laser eye surgery and after hearing many testimonials from happy friends, I knew it was time to do it for myself.
My whole life is built around my eyes. All of my passions: photography, writing, traveling, reading, and art require vision. So to say I was a little apprehensive about having part of my cornea shaved off is a bit of an understatement. The more I researched the procedure, however, the more comfortable I became. Seoul is home to many great eye centers, but one place in particular kept popping up in my research, The Dream Eye Center. The Dream Eye Center is located in Gangnam on the 14th floor of a skyscraper.
When I decided that this was the place to go, I reserved a free two hour consultation to have my eyes checked. The day I arrived for the consultation I was impressed by the immaculate office space and the friendly, English speaking, staff. I can speak Korean at an intermediate level, but when you have a serious medical procedure done, the ability to speak in your native language is vital. After all, this is surgery on your eyes. The office is huge and takes up nearly an entire floor of the building. Gangnam has the most expensive real estate prices in Seoul, so the fact that these doctors could afford such a space put me even more at ease. They must be doing something right.
For two hours my eyes were put through a gauntlet of tests. One test they performed even took pictures of the back of my eyeballs! I went through so many tests that most of them were completely new to me, but the entire time the directions were clear and I felt extremely comfortable and intrigued by the results. My vision was tested and it was -2.75 in both eyes. Then, they showed me what my vision could be like after the surgery. Most likely it will be 20/20, but some people receive even better results and I have friends that now have 20/13 vision because of surgery! Before my doctor's visit I was unaware that vision beyond 20/20 was even possible. By the end of my consultation I felt extremely excited about the procedure and I made the appointment for two days later on Friday night. That way I would have the weekend to recover and live like a vampire.
My results ruled out LASIK because my cornea was too thin, so my only option was the less pain LASEK. LASIK and LASEK have different benefits and drawbacks, but here is a basic breakdown. During the LASIK procedure the doctor has to make a larger cut to the cornea in order to make a flap. This flap is then reattached, and although more nerves are damaged in this procedure, the recovery time is much faster and LASIK patients can have great vision in one or two days.
LASEK has a much longer recovery time and typically causes more pain, but as I mentioned earlier, I didn't have a choice because of my thin cornea. Even if my cornea was thick enough, however, I was planning on doing LASEK anyway. I am a very active person. I do crossfit five to six days a week and I'm always traveling or putting my body through challenging experiences. Because of this, LASEK was a much better option for me. In LASEK the surgery depth is smaller and the corneal epithelium grows back naturally. Although this takes a lot longer to recover from, it is much safer in the long run. I would much rather take the long route to perfect vision and not have to worry about a flap in my cornea coming off if I'm ever hit in the face (which is highly likely with the crazy shenanigans I do).
The week leading up to my consultation and surgery I didn't wear my contacts because they actually change your eye's shape and the doctor needs your eyes to be in a more natural state. The day of surgery I was nervous, but also eager and excited. I arrived at the office at 6:40 in the evening and the attendant checked my eyes one final time. After that I sat in the waiting room for ten minutes and then was brought back for my procedure. First they took a vile of my blood to make my own personal eye drops to quicken my recovery. I thought this was really cool, but no the eye drops were not the color of blood. Once this was finished, I put on my gown, was given anesthetic eye drops, and was taken to the procedure room.
In the center of the operating room I saw the laser machine, my doctor, and his three attendants. I was led to the table, given the choice to hold a stuffed animal, I said yes, and then I lay down and was covered by a blanket. My head was situated under the machine and I was told to always stare at the green laser. My head was locked firmly in place and the doctor said each eye would take five minutes or less. At this point I'm sure most of you are wondering what if you move your head somehow, or blink? Will you be blinded by the laser or doctor’s scalpel? I'm here to assure you that this will not happen, not only because of the doctor's secure setup, but because of your own fear. I've never sat so still in my entire life; I was even worried about breathing too much. Even if you did manage to move somehow the laser instantly stops if it loses focus on your eye.
Once the procedure started the light became intensely bright. Due to my green eyes, this was the most uncomfortable part of the procedure. My pain level, however, was fine because my eyes were numb. After that I could see the doctor's instrument travel across the surface of my eye removing parts of the cornea and reshaping it. Did I mention they also corrected my astigmatism in both eyes? Technology is magnificent, isn't it? I remember laying there and thinking to myself that this is what an alien abduction must be like. The doctor turned on the laser and told me to expect a slight burning smell and to keep focusing on the light. Don't worry; it's just your eye being cooked for a few seconds. Before I knew it, the laser was shut off and then the doctor put more drops and ice cold water in my eye. He also covered the eye in a protective contact lens that I had to wear for the first week during the critical regrowth period of the cornea. I was shocked when he said that it was finished. I even spoke to him in Korean, while he switched eyes, which they all found humorous. I'm glad I made somebody laugh.
On the other eye, the same procedure was repeated, and in under eight minutes my surgery was over. I sat up on the table, relinquished my stuffed animal, and was guided to the relaxation room even though my vision was already better than my vision from eight minutes before! Once in the room, I was encouraged to lie down, close my eyes, and listen to music. Before your surgery, you actually get to choose a music genre to listen to while you recover. This is another personal touch, along with the stuffed animal, that really impressed me with the Dream Eye Center. I chose music soundtracks for my genre and I broke into a smile when "Try Everything" from Zootopia came on. My journey for perfect vision was underway.
Before I left the office, I was given the lowdown on all of the drops I needed to take and how to take care of my eyes over the next several days. The first night I was completely fine, and most of the next day was great too. That night, however, I had a hard time sitting in a dim restaurant because the light above us was reflecting off the metal table and making my eyes water. I could barely look up at my fiancé or the food on the table. Besides for increased light sensitivity, I also woke up during the night over the first three days because my eyes were gushing fluid. It felt like I had woken from a nightmare and was bawling because of it, but it was just an inconvenience. I never had any serious pain, and since I already had dry eyes, I've noticed no difference in eye comfort since the eye surgery.
Now, as I write this, it's been about two weeks since the surgery and I’m ecstatic about the results so far. My surgery cost 1,500,000 KRW which equals about 1,350 U.S. dollars. LASEK is the best money I’ve ever spent. Although my vision is still slightly blurry, it can take about a month to achieve perfect vision, I can see landscapes better. Things like buildings, trees, and cars now look more detailed and vibrant. It’s like someone pressed a switch and I went from living in a blurry world to a crystal clear one. It's understandable to be apprehensive about getting laser eye surgery, but don't let that stop you from doing it. For the rest of my life, at least until old age, I will have perfect vision and never have to depend on lenses or glasses. I still have to pinch myself when I go to remove my lenses before bed, and then remember that I don't have any in! It's moments like this when a smile breaks across my face and I can't believe how fortunate I am. Thanks to the Dream Eye Center my life will never be the same.
Contact Information for the Dream Eye Center can be found at hellolasik.com
The original foundations of Gyeongbokgung Palace were put down in 1395. Since then many invaders have come and gone, but the palace is still there. Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) is my favorite place in Seoul. I always feel in awe of the gates, gently sloping roofs, intricate paintings, and colorful wooden beams. So last week when I found myself in the area after renewing my passport at the US Embassy, I decided to take a lunch break at the palace and surround myself with its glorious history.
The first thing you see when you approach Gyeongbokgung is the impressive Gwanghwamun Gate. This gate was destroyed by the Japanese during their occupation, but rebuilt in 1968. The gate stands facing the modern skyline of Seoul. Nearby large billboards glow with ads selling makeup, cars, and cellphones while underneath streams of tourists and Korean office employees dart in and out of traffic. Behind Gwanghwamun, however, lies the magnificence of Korea's past. Three beautifully arched entrance ways with giant red doors open up to a remarkable view of the inner buildings and rising majestically behind them is Bugaksan mountain. This view is one of my favorites in Seoul and never ceases to stop me in my tracks and make me reflect.
During lunch the palace is much quieter than normal. Most people in the palace are Korean couples and tourists dressed in elaborate hanbok, Korean traditional clothing. Flowers have started to open on the trees and the air has finally lost the harsh slap of winter. I like to wander around the buildings and enjoy the silence. The only sounds are the soil crunching beneath my feet and the occasional laughter of a passing couple or family. It's incredible that I can stand in the same place, and enjoy the same scenery, that for hundreds of years was enjoyed by Kings and Queens. I like to imagine them strolling around just like me occasionally stopping to enjoy music, calligraphy, or the beauty of a flower in spring.
The Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a futuristic building located in the heart of Seoul. The building looks like a flying saucer that has landed to refuel, but somehow manages to complement the old fortress wall and Heunginjimun gate which are both five minutes away. It is a marvelous addition to the area that fuses Seoul's incredible past with it's technologically driven future.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is a hub of fashion, design, and art. There is always an exhibit, concert, or art show going on and it is a great place to buy unique gifts since many of Korea's up and coming designers have their products on display in the shops. If you're the kind of person who enjoys spending lots of time in Apple stores because of their design, then you will be blown away by the beauty and complexity of DDP. The buildings many sleek grey curves give the building a sense of life. At any moment, it seems like the building could lift off and fly away like some giant bird. It is a wonderful place to do photography, especially at night, and in 2015 it was the most tagged spot in Korea on Instagram.
Seoul is one of the busiest cities in the world and is constantly changing. New buildings are ceaselessly going up and the next craze is always being ushered in. If you want to experience the contrast between Seoul's future and past, visit the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. In Seoul, the future is already here.
Taiwan is known for its delicious food, vibrant street markets, friendly people, and Taipei 101. Along with its numerous urban charms, however, Taiwan is also a land of breathtaking natural beauty. This small country is filled with cascading waterfalls, sheer canyons, lush forests, and spectacular mountain ranges. It is not surprising that early Portuguese explorers named the island "Ilha Formosa", literally "beautiful island."
Taiwan is rugged and has mountain ranges that run from north to south. The tallest mountain in Taiwan, Yushan, rises a lofty 3,952 meters above sea level. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to summit the peak on my recent adventure, but I did explore the verdant beauty of Alishan National Scenic Area. This majestic park is home to many peaks over 2000 meters tall, thousand year old trees, and numerous bird species.
The night of our arrival we left the cramped bus, lifted our heavy bags, and trudged our way to the hotel. The mountain air was fresh, clean, and a slight breeze tickled our faces. We ate dinner at a small local restaurant and devoured a plate of stir fried beef and peppers, fried rice, and a soothing flower soup. Then we checked into our hotel and slowly drifted to sleep under an electric blanket as the temperature outside chilled.
In the morning the air was cold and every breath formed a small cloud. The rising sun was dazzling in the clear sky and the tops of the trees blazed in brilliant shades of green. Early morning fog danced among the trees and above us songbirds began their morning choir. After a cup of black coffee and a small bowl of steaming rice porridge we headed towards the park.
The first path we took followed the slithering tracks of an abandoned railway. We only passed one family on the trail that morning and the forest was still besides for the occasional croak of a crow or the chirping of hidden birds in the dense undergrowth. On either side of the tracks towering Japanese cedars blocked the sunlight and made a shifting patchwork of light shimmer on the rusted steel. We crossed an old wooden bridge and shortly after stood in awe at the base of a tree over 2000 years old. We admired its beauty, persistence, and enormity. It was humbling to stand in the presence of something so grand and ancient.
The second trail was bustling with vacationers, but still had spectacular views and moments. We hiked deep into the forest and gazed upon waterfalls, streams, and massive trees. Every breath was filled with the scent of life: rich soil, leaves, flowers. The forest was shrouded in a cool mist and the air was pure, the opposite of Taipei's scooter congested streets.
After hours of wandering we discovered a small, white and red Buddhist temple. We heard the temple before we saw it. Through the branches we heard the steady rhythm of chanting and could smell the burning of incense carried by the wind. As we approached the circular entryway, we saw a small golden Buddha. In the courtyard nuns swayed back and forth, their dresses sliding gently across the floor, to the music. We watched in silence for a few moments and left. We discovered a magnificent view of the mountains and decided to sit and appreciate the wonder taking place in front of us. The sun was just starting to set and through a scattering of clouds the sun pushed its last beams of light. The cold blue mist swirled and the tree tops become a sea of bright green. As the sun finally dipped below the tree line we started the descent and thought about our day in the woods accompanied by a symphony of crickets.
Alishan National Scenic Area is a sanctuary and place of reflection amidst Taiwan's urban explosion. It should not be missed on any itinerary of Taiwan.
The week before Chinese New year I went to Taiwan. During my trip I explored the alleys, night markets, and restaurants of Taipei. I also explored the lush and rugged mountains of Alishan National Forest, got chased by sheep at the Qingjing sheep farm, ate soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung, experienced the Taiwanese obsession with Hello Kitty, drank copious amounts of oolong tea, and walked the misty streets of Jiufen. It was an extraordinary trip and I look forward to going back.
My stomach rattled in my ribcage as the bus stopped and started over. The road was heavy with family-packed cars leaving Seoul for the long weekend. A trip that was supposed to take three hours turned into a five-and-a-half-hour odyssey. My back was sticking to my leather seat, my knees were chafing on the seat in front of me and a man to my right was snoring tremendously with his mouth agape. This bus ride was a test of endurance, but then I saw the mountains. My anger transformed into awe. My first glimpse of Seoraksan National Park came through the steamy window on my right; in the distance serrated peaks cut a jagged profile across the darkening sky and for the moment I forgot the bus, the traffic, and everything else.
During Korean Memorial Day weekend myself, my girlfriend, and a friend decided to escape city confines and explore the natural side of Korea. We wanted two days of relief from crowded subway cars, grimy air, and loogie-covered streets. Seoraksan was our solution: The forest brimming with sharp-edged peaks, waterfalls, twisting rivers, and soaring pines.
That night we shared a pot of gamjatang (pork bone and potato soup) and finished it with a bottle of local makgeolli, a traditional Korean alcohol made from rice. The soup was thick with succulent pork and golden potatoes. The makgeolli was slightly sweet and creamy – a perfect balance to the rich, fatty soup. I was exhausted at dinner and committed a chopstick debacle. My final cup of makgeolli became the victim of an erratic potato. The makgeolli turned dark red and small strips of potato skin floated to the top. The drink would have looked more at home in a lab studying infectious disease than in my stomach.
After dinner we called a taxi and went to our hotel located near the park entrance. We checked in, boiled eggs ahead for breakfast, discussed our hiking route, and then took a nice walk down the road to stretch our cramped legs. The night was a sheet of onyx, but the stars were bright. We stopped for a moment to enjoy the stars, silence, and the sweet scent of pine needles. After the walk, sleep came quickly.
The sunrise washed our room in bright light, but we slept in anyway; nothing is more tiring than traveling. We woke up at nine and ate a Spartan breakfast of boiled eggs, salted peanuts, yogurt, and a banana. Then we gathered our bags and walked towards the park. Originally, we had planned on taking the local bus to the park entrance, a little over two kilometers away, but then we saw a gigantic line of neon-clad hikers and decided to walk. I would rather walk than risk being jostled by ludicrously colossal multiday packs or skewered by sinister-looking walking sticks. On our left, a river bordered by tall green pine trees flowed peacefully over white boulders worn smooth. Behind the river, spiked peaks soared and waves of mist rippled slowly amongst them. At the main entrance we walked under a mighty wooden gate and bought our KRW 3500 admission to the park.
We decided to hike Ulsanbawi Rock – a gorgeous yet short trek. Our hike to the summit took us just under an hour and forty minutes. At the beginning, the pathway snaked through a lush valley and a small stream gurgled calmly on our left. Chipmunks scampered and played on the rocks while large magpies croaked overhead. The magpies’ brilliant blue, green, and black feathers shimmered in the sun. Bright green and orange toads hopped and swam about in small pools. The day was muggy, but occasionally a soothing breeze swept through the pines and provided relief. The terrain was steep and near-vertical sections of stairs dominated the final approach. At that point my forehead and back were soaked in sweat. The sun sat directly above us and the tree canopy disappeared. As the stairs took us higher and higher, the view became more and more beautiful. From our lofty vantage point, we enjoyed the rolling greenery and rugged beauty that make this park unique.
Finally, the stairs ended and smooth walls of towering granite stood before us. At the summit, sweat-drenched hikers gathered in swarms to take photos of the peak marker in order to justify their exertion and shattered quads. We opted to avoid the chaos and ate a small lunch on the summit of a lower peak. As we chewed on our trail mix and gazed at the beauty expanding in all directions, a fog from the Pacific came lumbering over the slopes and left us eating amongst the clouds. This dazzling view of Seoraksan National Park was worth the horrors of the cramped bus, the exhaustion, and jostling with grouchy, neon-clad elderly hikers.
The article can also be found by clicking the link below. This article was published in the September 2016 issue of Groove magazine.