Archive for November, 2011

Extreme River Crossing

Early in the summer I went on an “extreme hiking” trip with a cool group of coworkers. Well, it was supposed to be extreme hiking. The only extreme thing about it was the extremely bad judgment of our tour guide, and the drinking later on that night.

After work on a muggy Friday night, eleven of us (all foreign teachers) take the KTX  to Busan. We arrive in Busan close to 1 am. The bus is leaving for the hiking expedition the next morning at 9 am, so we decide to try to find a place to stay near the bus station to play it safe.

Standing outside of the bus station weighing which direction might lead to suitable accommodations for the evening, an affable Korean guy approaches and is quick to make conversation. Many English-speaking Koreans have an English name. I have a Korean name that I almost never use. After answering five multiple-choice questions Facebook crowned me with the Korean name Lee Dong Yeol, meaning “eastern passion.”  I never truly appreciated the prevalence of the English language until actually going to another part of the world.  With that said, I prefer to learn someone’s real name, even if I butcher the pronunciation. Maybe they feel differently. At any rate, he is called Johnny.

Johnny is ostensibly inebriated, yet composed. He wants to help us find decent, affordable lodging because when he was studying abroad many Aussies helped him along the way. We go from one hotel to another as Johnny negotiates for the eleven of us. Things heat up when Johnny  is talking to the owner of a motel. Johnny feels we are getting a raw deal and expresses his discontent with the middle-aged owner. Eventually we find a place that costs $10 per person which Johnny is okay with. Our room doesn’t have any beds. It is a traditional room with floor mats, an AC and a bathroom –  its ten dollars. We go to a chicken & beer restaurant until 4 am.

In Korea I find many people to be helpful, especially the younger crowd. The most sound explanation is that they are more comfortable communicating, speaking English. Or, it may be more rooted in having a different worldview, being more open-minded than the older generation. I feel most older folks are either thrilled to see a mayonnaise face like myself or put off by it, without much middle ground.  Either way I usually have been able to find someone to aid me when needed.

We wake up at 8:30 and drag ourselves to the bus station. It is raining heavily. Four hours of sleep on the floor with a stomach full of beer has got me primed and ready to do this extreme hike. Woo! We take off at 9:15 – a bus load of foreigners and a Korean tour guide, Charles. Charles is thinly built with parted hair, glasses and a permanently wide grin.

Despite the rain everyone is in good spirits. Over a microphone Charles introduces himself and explains the itinerary. He then passes on the mic to the rest of us to introduce ourselves and say a quick something. My brain searches for something witty. Not many synapses firing. I say something lame about being happy that one of my coworkers made it on the trip. Instantly I regret not saying I was a recovering heroine addict or something along those lines. Oh well.  There will always be another time to pretend to be a junkie.

The time passes. When I look out the window I see one green mountain after another. Korea is about 70 % mountainous making the roughly 50 million inhabitants much more mind-blowing. It seems that any relatively flat land is either farmland or a city. The bus ride is filled with chatter and faint music coming from an array of headphones.  Sensing uneasiness about the heavy rain Charles takes the microphone: “Um as you see, it’s berry rainy… we have to cross riber … but I don’t know what it’s like … maybe it is berry strong … we will try. It’s kind cold so I think maybe we should drink soju now.” Soju is a popular clear liquor that is cheap as hell and will knock you on your ass before you know it. He passes the bottle around.

We finally arrive. It’s close to 1pm. The rain hasn’t let up, but it hasn’t deterred anyone’s spirits. We’re ready to do this hike, except for two girls. One says that she is staying on the bus because she is still recovering from a torn ACL, the other doesn’t want her to be alone. The rest of us get off the bus and we stand in the rain for 20 minutes. Then we go down a small walkway to the river. I envisioned hiking a few hours and trekking across a river at some point. I am wrong. The river is the first challenge. Due to all the rain the past two days the river is deep and flowing at a good pace. The ankle-deep water quickly swirls to waist-level and presumably eye-level for a little person. There are no little people on the trip. In fact, I didn’t see one little person the entire year I was in Korea. Something to think about…

The river was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to send soup back in a deli.

Charles asks for a volunteer to wade across the river first. Apparently, on a normal day, without torrential downpour, crossing the river is not a sizable challenge in any respect. The next day I would see a brochure of this spot on a clear summer day and it was filled with children and their families playing in the water.  Today there was nobody by the river … except for 40 foreigners, and Charles.

 “I’ll do it”, voiced a well-built product of Texas.

 I’m not sure if he had too much to drink, wanted to impress his girlfriend in attendance, or if he was normally this cocksure, but he started across. About five guys hold one end of a rope and the Texan carries the other end with him. The water climbs to his waist. Holding the rope he steps gingerly in order not to lose his balance. After about 10 long minutes the Texan makes it across unscathed. The rain continues to fall.

 The apprehension manifests itself now, written on faces of most in the group. Math has never come easy to me but I do a quick calculation in my head:  bus load of people + heavy rain + river crossing = NO FUCKING WAY.

 After working out the numbers in my head I turn around to find about 20 Koreans standing under umbrellas up on the side of the road watching what is going on down by the river like they are watching a band of monkeys at a zoo exhibition. Some point, some laugh, others look genuinely concerned.

 “This is not going to happen,” exclaimed a woman grasping the hand of another woman. “Where did Charles go?”

 I look around and I don’t see our tour guide.

 Next I hear police sirens, followed by a voice on a mega phone.

 He is speaking in Korean but you get the sense that they want us out of here.

 A Korean man comes down the bank speaking in Hangul. He says we have to go.  I said I understand and tried to explain in piecemeal Korean that our “leader” (I don’t know how to say tour guide in Hangul) has left.

  The bus that parked on the side of the road is no longer there.

“Did Charles leave on the bus?!” cried an Englishman with a cigarette tucked behind each ear.

A few people motion to the Texan that he has to cross back to where we are all standing on the other side of the river. Now the water is even higher and the current has gained strength. Without much deliberation he ties the rope around his waist and slowly descends into the agitated river.

The Texan labors to the midway point of the river and is then knocked off his feet. Everyone gasps – including the Korean spectators by the road. He starts drifting down with the current. More guys quickly take the rope to haul him before he is swept further down the river.  As I see this unfolding I run toward the rope and grab ahold of the rope with the others (you can call me a hero). Later the Texan would explain that every tug of the rope dragged his body and head under the water making it impossible to get a full breath of air. In little time, the Texan is pulled across. Upon reaching the dry rocks that border the river his girlfriend runs to where he lay gasping for air. Later that night when the rain finally took a  break we all went to  the beach that was close to the pension house where we stayed and we had a good laugh about the whole thing as the Texan showed off the severe rope burn across his torso.  

You’re probably wondering where Charles disappeared to. At some point during the Texan’s struggle to make it to shore he reappeared.  Apparently he was on a mission to get more rope so that we could all cross the river faster. Charles was not in the least fazed by the whole ordeal and actually had the idea to relocate and try to cross the river at a different spot before his idea was shot down by a crowd of uneasy, cold, wet foreigners.

We spent a lot of time on the bus that weekend navigating through the rain (it was monsoon season) but we did have some nice meals together, partied on the beach and went to a beautiful wind power plant on the way home. Overall it was a fun adventure, albeit a much different kind than what we had anticipated.

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Coming (back) to America

Recently, I came (back) to America after completing a one-year teaching arrangement in Daegu, South Korea. I had a great time in the peninsula known for its spicy food, loud diners, and myriad singing rooms. There are many stories I plan on sharing now that I have some free time (yeah, I’m unemployed).  I also spent a week in Japan, close to a month in India, and a whopping 18 hours in Egypt, so I will fill you in on some of those adventures as well.

My boy Chris and I paying homage to Buddha at Mt. Seoraksan National park in the northeast part of South Korea.

A lot has changed since I last had American soil under my feet:

My Grandpop got remarried to his former high school football coach’s daughter. Well played.

Revolutions have occurred and persist in the Arab world…

…Hell, even Americans have joined in with the Occupy Movements. If I don’t land a job in the next month I might join the party … if only for the free food.

I now practice yoga.

Osama bin Laden no longer haunts the American psyche.

The NBA is not in business (dejected sigh).

My bro moved to New York City.

Another friend tied the knot. Congratulations BD and Cynthia.

Harley, the family German shepherd, is now hobbling around due to pain in his hind quarters.  Eventually all of our biological clocks submit to the force of time. Poor guy.

And this is all just at the surface!

When I was in Korea I didn’t really get homesick at all except for the holidays. It was only the last month when the finish line was in sight did I really begin to yearn for chicken parmigiana. I thought about teaching for another year, not at the same hagwon (academy) but at a different school. I learned that work life can really improve after your first year of teaching because you know the lay of the land. You get a better idea of what academies are top drawer, what area is nicest and, of course, you are more comfortable with the culture.  Plus, you establish a social network of people. I met some great people during my time in Korea.  

Pretending to grade papers on my last day of work.

About a month before I left Korea, I had a meeting with the manager of the academy where I worked. His English name is Kenny. His user login name at work is Brad Pitt. What Kenny lacks in mental stability he makes up for in emotional immaturity. In the one year that I knew Kenny I think I accumulated enough material to write an entire book series based on all of his idiosyncrasies.

First day back from summer vacation Kenny and a female foreign teacher have an exchange.

“Hey, Kenny.”

“Hey, how was vacation?”

“It was brilliant.”

 [motioning to his face] “Did you get the plastic surgery?”
“Uhh, no.”

In the meeting, right off the bat, Kenny made it perfectly clear the reason why he wanted me to resign for another year.

“Daniel I can’t find a replacement for you.”

“Sorry to hear that, Kenny.”

“You know, I got to find a replacement because your leaving and [sucking his teeth] right now it’s not easy to find a teacher in a month.”

“Yeah, I can imagine.”

An uncomfortably long silence follows in which Kenny leans back in his chair and gazes at the ceiling.

“You’re not coming back to Korea, are you?”

“No. It’s not my plan.”

Another long uncomfortable silence ensues.

“So, what will you do?”

“I’m going to look for work in New York.”

“You know Daniel, I’m from New York.”

At every conceivable opportunity he slips in that he is from New York. Nobody is sure how many years he actually spent in NY because the number changes so frequently, but apparently he spent some time living in NYC. He is from South Korea.

“You’ve said that.”

“My dream is to go back and be a sushi chef (I have also heard this many times) …you know I understand American culture … I know Americans don’t like working hard.”

“That isn’t true.”

“You know, you’ve done a good job here.”

“Thanks.”

“So what do you think?”

“About what, extending my contract?”

“Yeah.”

“I told you, I’m going back to New York.”

This is more or less how the conversation ended. Even if I thought about extending my contract before the meeting the manner in which he asked me would have changed my mind.  Not surprisingly I was forced to make a threat that I was going to file a complaint with the labor board in order to get paid on time before I left.

After leaving Korea I spent almost a month in India. It was quite the experience. A real jolt to your senses.

I’ve been back in the US for two weeks now catching up with family and friends and getting re-acclimated with American culture. Being separated from the life that I knew really has allowed me to appreciate everything I have, especially my family.  Also, eating NY pizza again was a glorious moment.

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