Sunday, April 21, 2013

about my trip

It's after midnight in Seoul, and I can't decide whether to sleep or stay awake. Some moments I'm tired; at other moments, I feel perky and just dandy. My body's still adjusting to the new time zone, I guess. Today, I had promised myself that I'd do a good bit of work (writing job applications and such), but around 6PM, just a few hours after hanging with my buddy Tom, I decided to take a nap that stretched into a four-hour sleepfest. So: nothing of substance was accomplished, although I can take comfort in having done some crucial shopping with Tom earlier in the day: I've got a new button-down shirt and a new jacket; Seoul is remarkably cool and rainy at the moment, and I hadn't packed any sort of outerwear at all. Also, thanks to Tom, I've got a cell phone, which makes me reachable on the peninsula.

Since I'm up and can't seem to get back to sleep for some odd reason, I thought I'd write a bit about my trip over. As you know, I programmed some "scheduled" posts to appear while I was en route to Seoul. I had written them on Wednesday, the night before my early-morning departure this past Thursday. What did I get right and what did I get wrong?

I was largely correct about my travel schedule, but was off a bit: my flight to New York arrived twenty minutes early, and my flight to Seoul arrived thirty minutes late because of serious headwinds, or so we were told. All in all, though, I was basically on schedule.

One thing I got completely wrong was the size of the restroom stalls. On the flight from New York to Seoul, I rode in a Boeing 777-200; during the flight, I got up to use the restroom exactly once—just to pee—and was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a large, roomy stall with plenty of space for knee-swing and leg spreadage. That fact alone made me wish I'd been in there to take a shit, but something weird almost always happens to me on long flights: the urge to drop a steamer disappears. Maybe it's because I'm so tightly squished into my chair that my intestines are scrunched into submission. Who knows? Whatever the reason might be, the result is the same: long flight, no dudu (I'm sure I can figure out how to render that as a 4-character Chinese proverb).

But all was not pleasant surprises. The constant presence of a gentle, air-conditioned breeze on the Boeing dried out my nostrils and gave me enormous, crusty, itchy boogers. On my lone trip to the bathroom, I blew my nose and was shocked to see these awful, asteroid-sized chunks of snot—some of them rather bloody—blasting into my mouchoir. Another inconvenience was the presence of a girl, maybe two years old, who cried and screamed for hours, punctuating my already-arduous journey with her intolerable noise. Now, some kids look cute when they cry, and some kids look ugly. This girl, who sat on the opposite side of the plane and several rows ahead of me, was the second type. Her face twisted in a grotesque manner that revealed her lower teeth, and nothing her poor mother did could assuage her misery. If character is written in people's genes, I'd say that this kid is destined to become a whiny, insecure, fearful bitch: a pessimist to the core. God help her future husband.

My seatmates were two older folks. The man next to me was Korean; we spoke perhaps two sentences in Korean to each other at the beginning of the flight, then said nothing the rest of the time. Introvert that I am, I was fine with that. The lady at the window seat looked Korean—so Korean, in fact, that the flight attendants kept addressing her in Korean—but she must have been some other sort of East Asian. She replied to the flight attendants in accented English. Both of these good people kept getting up at regular intervals to use the restrooms during the flight; I'd say they went on their forays about every two hours or so. All I could think was: that's me in the future. Ten or fifteen years from now, I'll be unable to hold anything in, and will have to visit the bathroom every ten minutes. Just sew on my colostomy bag now, why don't you? Luckily for me, I didn't feel all that inconvenienced every time they got up: standing up was a welcome break from the slow torture of sitting, cramped, for hours.

Disembarkation at Incheon was as smooth as always. Passport control now has a nifty biometric procedure that we arrivals have to go through: you stare into a camera while placing your two index fingers on tiny oval scanners. In this way, your face and fingerprints are recorded along with your claims-form information. My bag wasn't the first out of the carousel, but it wasn't the last, either, which was a welcome change from the usual predominance of Murphy's Law (to wit: "Your bag will always be the last one to appear on the baggage-claim carousel."). Wi-fi service at Incheon International Airport is both powerful and free, unlike the Wi-fi at JF-fucking-K. I whipped out my laptop and sent a few "I've arrived safely!" emails. The urge to dump finally hit me from behind, so I lugged my bags into a nice, clean restroom stall, the kind that makes you feel secure and private thanks to floor-to-ceiling walls and no obnoxious, peeping-Tom gaps at the door.

The next step, post-defecation, was to exchange the $600 in cash burning a hole in my pocketses, Precious. That was easily done; the won-dollar exchange rate remains steady, as it has for the better part of a decade, at about 1100 to 1. After that, I needed to search for the limousine bus that would take me to John McCrarey's daughter-in-law's apartment. I spoke with a lady at the transportation information booth; she complimented my Korean, and I told her, by way of justification, that I had lived in Korea for eight years. I know to take such compliments with a grain of salt; Koreans have very low expectations of foreigners' Korean ability, so they're invariably surprised to hear a foreigner string together sentences in more or less clearly pronounced Korean. I know my own skill level well enough to know that I rarely earn the compliments I receive.

I found the bus stop, bought a ticket (W14,000, so I was about right in my prediction of the current price), then got on the bus. It was a struggle to stay awake: at that point, it was sometime after 5PM, local time, which meant it was 4AM back in Virginia, and my body was telling me to get some shut-eye. I'd slept a bit on the plane, but the trans-Pacific flight wasn't as comfortable, this time, as it had been in the past. I may have to shell out for one of those nifty neck-support pillows that a lot of travelers have.

The bus charged down the freeway toward Seoul, then wended its way through Seoul's congested traffic to my destination. I got off the bus, breathed in the familiar exhaust fumes of one of the most populous cities on the planet, and took stock of my surroundings. John McCrarey had very kindly sent me not only his daughter-in-law's apartment key, but also a note with a very detailed set of handwritten directions on it. With that note in hand, and feeling embarrassingly like a tourist despite being an eight-year veteran Seoulite, I found my way to the apartment with no trouble at all, then went back out to get myself a haircut.

The apartment building's ground floor is stuffed with various shops and services: laundry, beauty salons, restaurants, and a convenience store among them. I lumbered into a beauty salon and asked how much a regular haircut was. "8000 won," was the answer. The tiny shop was crowded with a chatty gaggle of ajummas engaged in the globally known ritual of femme-bonding. I was once again impressed with what you get for W8000, which is not even $8: a full haircut plus a thorough shampooing. Where I work in Centreville, Virginia, the barbershop next to YB charges $10 for a simple cut—no shampoo.

When we were finished, I asked the lady how well she knew the neighborhood, then asked her where I might buy, locally, a "down" transformer, which is to say, a shoebox-sized piece of equipment that plugs into the Korean-style 220-volt wall socket, but converts the electricity ("down") to 110 volts and has US-style 2-prong sockets on its face. She brightened and told me not to move: she had an old transformer right there that she was willing to sell me for W10,000, not even ten bucks. She ran out of her shop, then came back with the old, beaten-up transformer. There were a few parting questions from some of the ladies, now that they knew I spoke Korean: the typical "Where are you from? Why are you here?" kind of topics. Triumphant, I took the transformer back up to my new temporary digs.

The apartment itself proved spacious for a single guy. Its occupant was obviously not a scholar; unlike my own apartment, there were no walls lined with bookcases. An imposing treadmill hunkered down in the kitchen/dining room area; a green Jogye Buddhist prayer book-cum-hymnal sat on a perch in the living room. Both the living room and the master bedroom were dominated by hulking TVs. These distractions were all well and good, but the bed—ah, the bed was firm and tempting, and after I had set up my computer and sent off another set of emails, I could resist the sandman no longer, and off to sleep I went.

One of the emails I'd sent was to my buddy Tom; we arranged to meet in the dreaded Itaewon (I've written about my feelings toward Itaewon before) at 11AM in front of the Hamilton Hotel, a nondescript red-brick building that has nevertheless somehow managed to reach iconic status among old Korea hands. Say "Hamilton" to any Seoul-based expat who's been in country more than a year, and he'll know just what you're talking about. I got up around 8AM on Saturday, having had about 5 or 6 hours of sleep, then dithered a while on the laptop and eventually made my way over to meet Tom.

Saturday morning was cool, gray, and rainy. Tom looked about the same as he's always looked: shorter than me, a bit boyish in face and voice, with a sly grin always hiding somewhere around the corner. We ate lunch at a local döner kebab joint, then went to a sleazy-looking cell-phone shop in one of Itaewon's seedy back alleys; the shop was run by a Bangladeshi Muslim who spoke Korean quite competently (I know this mainly because I overheard him on the phone; he spoke to Tom and me in English). While we waited, I slipped Tom 500,000 won as payment for the extra fees surrounding the air-miles purchase of the plane ticket that got me here to begin with.

I ended up getting an old Samsung "slider" phone—one with no frills or gewgaws, just voice and texting, period. I'll likely keep the thing for the month I'm here, then give it back. Next, we hopped over to charge the "T-money" transportation farecard that Tom had given me (along with a slew of other needed items, like a plug adapter, an umbrella, and an optical mouse); I took out some extra cash from a "global" ATM ("global" means that the ATM has no trouble accepting foreign credit and debit cards; many local ATMs are less compatible), then we walked down the street, did a bit of golf-paraphernalia shopping for Tom, then headed over to the keun-ot-jeom (big & tall store) to buy me some clothing. I purchased a tie, another comfortable button-down shirt, and a jacket appropriate to the weather. The shop ladies cooed over Tom's voice, which they found very handsome. I rolled my eyes. To me, Tom sounds a bit like a cartoon character. (Sorry, dude, but you know it's true.)

We took a taxi downtown, where Tom picked up a backpack-style baby carrier that had been on sale for 70% off. Walking a few doors down, we stepped into a shop that sold, among other things, cheap alarm clocks. I bought one of those, knowing full well that my jet lag could, without technological intervention, make me late for crucial business appointments. Our shopping completed, Tom and I went our separate ways. I got back to the apartment, then went out to do a wee bit of grocery shopping at a shop that John had recommended in his very informative letter.

Tired, I did some laundry, then around 6PM, I put myself down for what I had hoped to be a short nap, but which turned out to be a full-on sleep session. I woke up around 10PM, wondering whether I was still tired or not, then decided to bang out this entry on the laptop.

That about catches me up. I can only add these two points:

(1) one gentleman, who runs the laundromat on the ground floor of this apartment building, called me over and asked me whether I was the American dude he'd heard about. I was surprised, but he then told me that he'd spoken with the beauty salon ladies, and they had told him about me. Word gets around, I guess; I'm already on my way to becoming a local attraction.

(2) when I look across the street from my current digs, I see another apartment building whose name has been painted onto its side in both Korean and English. The English name: Centreville. It's almost as though I'd never left America.



John McCrarey said...

Ah, vintage Kevin! A nice read indeed.

I've had my hair cut there a couple of times too. The last time I was sporting a beard. She asked me something in Korean and I must have nodded ambivalently. She then proceed to shave my sideburns leaving a one inch gap between my ears and my beard. It looked as ridiculous as it sounds.

Ah, your post makes me a little homesick...

Charles said...

I would think either 長行無糞 or 長行無便, depending on how coarse you want to be. Of course, that's really more "long journey" or "long travel" rather than "long flight," but I don't think 長飛 works too well.