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The PyeongChang Diaries: Of fierce winds and a taste of South Korea

AIPS Media's "bobsled" trio of Rayane, Sonja and Chibuogwu at PyeongChang 2018. (Photo by AIPS)
by Chibuogwu Nnadiegbulam, AIPS Young Reporter, Nigeria

PYEONGCHANG, February 24, 2018 - The wind whispers softly, they say. But in PyeongChang I heard it roar, literally. Now imagine how well it caresses the face when it mixes with the unusual PyeongChang cold. You have no idea!

For those three days in which it showed itself in a strangely strong manner, I got a "beat face" that will definitely last a long time in my memory. Pun intended.

I have had to wear three layers of clothes on a regular basis including a winter jacket that makes me look all puffed up, a bonnet for my head, a scarf for my neck and of course socks and boots, still the cold sneaks in somehow. Meanwhile the sun could only stare at us from the sky like a monument in a showcase and one could look it in the eye.

Just so you know too, my phone suffered from "low temperature" a few times and my mixed zone experience involved freezing hands that felt like I had been flogged several strokes.

But that was nature - of which I can barely do anything about - playing its role in the shaping of my future. I think.

The past two weeks of my life was about my first ever (Winter) Olympics. Nigeria making its debut at the Games made it even more special and most notably, I was one of only two Nigerian journalists at PyeongChang 2018.

Having been present at the AIPS Journalists on the Podium event that recognized veteran journalists with six or more Winter Olympics to their names at the elegant Casa Italia (Italy House) on Monday, I couldn't be more inspired and excited for my future. That is two decades and counting we are talking about here. The excitement they exhumed as they received pens in the form of the PyeongChang 2018 torch alongside diplomas revealed their passion, dedication and humility.

Karen Rosen was one of the recipients. I had met her at figure skating days earlier. She is so approachable. While she seriously typed away during the team event of the sport, she didn't mind my asking her questions. I had expressed interest in interviewing the Tongan bare-chested guy from the opening ceremony, Pita Taufatofua and she offered to make contacts with someone who could help me get to him. Two days later we bumped into each other at the main dining hall of Gangneung media village and she gave me feedback on my request. The event at Casa Italia was the third time I saw her and she smiled at me.

From cross country to alpine skiing; biathlon to figure skating; skeleton to bobsled - these are sports I never imagined I would watch live and then write about. But I have seen, beyond the wall, passionate fans that defy cold and snow, I have seen the raw emotions of athletes in this my brief exploration of winter sports and most importantly, I have learned a lot.

Of course, there are some sports that could be described as weird, like curling which depicts house cleaning but it only takes understanding for one to change one's perception about something.

I can tell you that curling is now Rayane's favourite sport, I will only advise you not to take it to the bank. After she had a personal encounter with the sport, she couldn't stop talking about it.

I had a love-at-first sight encounter with cross country, thanks to AIPS President Gianni Merlo, who explained the basics to me - obviously just reading about it was not enough.

Figure skating stole my heart away at the Gangnaung Ice Arena. It is that winter sport you cannot help but love with its infusion of music, dance and acting. There's the attention to aesthetics, technicality and presentation while interpreting a song or an instrumental, which all brings the reality-show feeling. The skills in the sport are exceptional and there is so much attention to detail. It's no wonder that the there's limited space for even the press. Even as media, you have to be ticketed for the event you want to watch.

Meanwhile I developed a special attachment to the Olympic Sliding Centre and you can understand why. That was where Team Nigeria made history in its first ever winter games. Seun Adigun, Akuoma Omeoga and Ngozi Onwumere became the first ever team (men or women) from Africa to compete in bobsled in the tournament, while Simidele Adeagbo - whom I took selfies with at the mixed zone - became the first Nigerian, African and Black woman to feature in skeleton. PyeongChang 2018 was a dream come true for all of us.

Sonja, Rayane and I made up AIP media's first ever women's bobsled team. Working with this team made my experience worthwhile and I got to meet and interview personalities that I had only watched on television. You can rest assured that I exchanged contacts with colleagues from other parts of the world as well.

In the course of meeting people, I met Tara, a lady from England who is married to a Nigerian and they live in China with their children. The fascinating thing about this meeting was that she introduced herself to me in Igbo - which is one of the three main indigenous languages in Nigeria.

I met another guy from Syria who lives in Tokyo. He is a journalist and he told me about his Nigerian friend who has many night clubs and bars in Tokyo. This his Nigerian friend is popularly known as "oga" in the area which means boss. I laughed so hard when he told me this.

February 14 was an almost forgotten affair during the games but South Korea's new year's day, February 16, was a fanfare. From breakfast at the main dining hall of Gangnaung Media Village to a special dinner at the Main Press Centre in PyeongChang, there was a constant reminder of what the day was about with an exhibition of Korean culture in dressing, food and literature. Even the PyeongChang 2018 mascot was dressed in typical Korean attire.

But in all of the South Korean hospitality, language barrier was a problem. On two occasions Rayane and I got frustrated in our bid to locate the press tribune at a venue of an event. Then there was once I needed to stay back on the shuttle so I could send an urgent message using its Wi-Fi connection. It was a battle trying to get the driver to understand me even with the help of the translation app on his phone and all my gesticulations. He eventually did though after about 15 minutes.

The transportation service at PyeongChang 2018 was satisfactory with drivers keeping to time of departure. There are sign posts beside the load zones that say the destination of the buses and times of arrival and departure. But there was this one night I alongside four other journalists waited for a bus that never came at the Olympic Sliding Centre load zone. It was almost 12 midnight and then we decided to walk. My problem was not the 15-20minutes walk to the MPC but the scary downward slope that leads one out of the sliding centre. I walked really slowly to avoid stories that touch. By the time I arrived the flat road at the end of the slope, I had lost sight of the others who were all men. My boots felt heavy as I hurriedly walked the remaining miles to catch the next bus going to the media village.

Fried boneless chicken was my favourite meal during the games but I did have a special encounter with Korean cuisine twice and knowing how picky I can be with foreign foods, I am glad I dared to try most of what I was served. However, I'm scared that I may never like Kimchi. It looks so good but my taste buds still need a little more convincing.

On the first occasion, it was the President of the Korean Sports Press Union, Hee Don Jung who took us out for dinner. On getting to the restaurant, we had to take off our shoes for a start which is a typical Korean thing to do. Then we were led to a room that had a table and eight chairs around it. I was thinking we would sit on pillows.

The cutleries were already set on the table; iron chopsticks and a soup spoon. It was now time for some chopsticks lessons. But my efforts amounted to little and so I had to settle for fork. We had a tasty barbecue meal - with the beef being roasted right in front of us -after which we were served bibimbap - which is rice mixed with beef, different kinds of vegetables, soy sauce and sesame oil. I managed to mix the bibimbap using the chopsticks, but I used fork to taste it and couldn't go beyond a spoon because of the sesame oil.

On the day of my departure from South Korea, I finally met my cousin for the first time in nearly two decades and we did a little bit of catching up over Korean food at the airport. We had tried so hard to meet before then but to no avail. I honestly couldn't imagine leaving South Korea without setting my eyes on her.

Days have gone by so fast and I'm back in Nigeria flashing back to an experience I wish had lasted a little longer in spite of the cold. From the magical snowfall feeling to writing and recording reports about the games, it was an incredible journey that I will forever cherish.

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