Posts Tagged Busan

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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The Korean Wedding

I went to my first Korean wedding over 3 weeks ago.

When Mijin asked me if I wanted to join her for her friend’s wedding my response was an emphatic “obvi”.   During my stay, I have experienced many parts of Korean life and I figured this would be a good opportunity to bolster my cultural traditions resume. Plus, Mijin is good company. And, who doesn’t like a wedding? My favorite wedding moment came when my mom was getting remarried during the time when I had my first signs of armpit hair (an exciting time in my life). My brother Dave, who is one year older, was 16 then.  Dave isn’t a big dancer now, and was much less likely to bust a move during this pubescent stage. I forget what relative was feeding him drinks the whole night but before anyone could even do the chicken dance he was out on the dance floor grinding  with my mom’s boss’s daughter like they were at a club in Cancun. Great moment. She got grounded as a result. The next afternoon, I stood laughing outside of the bedroom door as he delivered an apology over the phone. I think I was bitter I didn’t get a dance.

The wedding was in Busan so we left Daegu on a rainy Sunday (it’s monsoon season) at 10 am. Mijin messages me that her friend will pick me up at a bank near my apartment before picking her up. I stood underneath the roof awning outside of the bank when I hear a beep from a black SUV. I run toward the car and jump in the back seat. Her friend knows very little English so we basically greet each other, exchange some words,  and  ride in silence until Mijin hops aboard. Goeun and I get to know each other as Mijin interprets. The roads are slick. We have several close calls with other cars on the road, resulting in Goeun proclaiming, “I am best driver!” I find solace in the green rice patties and rolling mountains.

We arrive at Paradise Hotel in Busan at 12:30, just in time for the start of the ceremony. Paradise Hotel is large, upscale hotel across the street from the beach. Mijin greets her friend, the bride who is sitting in a secluded room.  She looks very bride-like: white gown, hair did, the works.  The bride, who doesn’t speak English, is talking to her two long-time friends.   I look  on with a smile. The photographer motions for a photograph. I quickly move out-of-the-way when the photographer signals for me to join the picture. I refuse. She insists. I stand behind the three seated friends. Later Mijin shows me the picture that was taken with her IPhone. I look like a random guy photo-bombing the picture. I regret not giving the peace sign.

The wedding ceremony is in a spacious banquet hall. Because we don’t arrive early and the tables are not specifically designated for the guests, we have to stand along the back wall.   I survey the room, estimating about 250 people (Mijin later tells me about 400 people came and went). I am the only westerner. I don’t really feel out-of-place except that I’m wearing brown shoes with black pants. I was always told this is a cardinal sin in fashion, but Mijin assures me that it is in style now. Mijin’s outfit goes together seamlessly.

Apparently, the groom is loaded  (rich not drunk).

Up to this point, this wedding doesn’t look or feel any different from a large, upscale wedding in the States except that everyone is speaking Korean and it was a little earlier in the day. The groom walks down the aisle and the bride and her father make the stroll next.  A  man appearing in his early 30’s  with a microphone says some words that were probably much different from what I was imagining in my head unless he was indeed analyzing the looming NBA lockout. Mijin said he was giving something akin to a best man toast.  After that, an older guy (ajoshi) has some things to say. I’m not sure if he announced them husband and wife. Next, the microphone is given to a young guy seated at a table. He stands up and serenades the new couple with a song. I recognize some Korean words such as “love”, but my mind is on other things.

 I hope filet mignon is being served.

Luckily, some guests leave before lunch is doled out which means we get to sit down. Mijin and Goeun go to the stage to take part in some group photos. I watch with a glass of red wine and a bowl of mushroom soup. I am ecstatic to discover steak on the menu. Haven’t had much steak in Korea. Hard to come by.Later in the meal, the new married couple enter the room each wearing  traditional Korean garb.

They go around the room and greet each table in their flashy hanbeoks. Apparently, the couple had a short, private traditional Korean ceremony moments before. Mijin asked if I wanted to go see it. I asked if it would be more exciting than the steak and we stayed put.

At the end of the meal they served Korean wedding soup. It consisted of noodles and kimchi. Tasty.

I well understood beforehand that the wedding would only be for a couple of hours and that there would not be a long drawn out reception ceremony filled with dancing, drinks, and mingling, but as lunch was winding down  a melancholy feeling hit me. There will be no dancing. 

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Riding in style

About a month ago

On a Saturday morning, a couple coworkers and I take the 45 minute KTX  ride to Busan with the intention of lounging on the beach for a couple of days. My skin hasn’t seen much sun this year so I kind of look like a vampire. No, I don’t watch True Blood.

Busan, the second largest city in South Korea, is a two-hour car ride south of Daegu. It’s on the southern tip of the peninsula and it is the fifth largest  port in the world. There’s more to do there than in Daegu, like going to the beach,  so it doesn’t suck. My first time there, back in April, I went to Shinsegae, the world’s largest department store. Shinsegae makes a typical Macy’s look like a  kiosk. There is an ice rink, so I went ice skating, nearly killing several young Korean children (stopping on skates isn’t my thing). We make it to Busan Station go outside and immediately look for a cab. A taxi driver who looks to be in his mid 50’s  with leathery skin sees us and recruits us into his car. I notice that his car is all black and that it says ‘Deluxe’ on the side, spurring me to voice my concern to my friends. We reason that it can’t be too much more expensive and hop in.

Normally, a meter will start at 2200 won (close to $2), this particular cab is 4600 won out of the gate.  It’s clear we are going to pay more for leather seats. I communicate in piece-meal Korean to the driver that this is expensive. The driver replies in a sandpaper voice that its alright, he says something else that I don’t understand, and then he chuckles. At this point I don’t trust him, I don’t necessarily dislike him, but I don’t trust him.  My two coworkers are laid back (one reason they are good company) and they aren’t overly concerned with the price.  We decide that if the fare seems out of control early on we will get out and hail a new cab.

About 5 minutes pass when we reach a part of the city littered with oil refineries (I think).  There is nothing like a steady whiff of oil. My gaze out the window is interrupted by a quick glance at the meter. It reads 17000 won. We aren’t near Haeundae Beach yet and we aren’t in an area to find another cab. A cab ride from the station to Haeundae is normally 15000 won.  While this cab is higher in price because there is a decal on the side that boasts that it is deluxe, I think we also fell victim to the take-advantage-of-the-foreigners-traveling-in-a-new-city scheme that some unscrupulous taxi drivers employ.  I become irritated and again mumble that it’s too expensive.  Our only option is to bite the bullet, continue, and hope the price isn’t too high. At this moment, I regret settling for the deluxe cab and save the experience into my enormous lesson learned file.

When we finally reach an area where we are able to find a more reasonable cab, the meter has jumped to 25700 won. We decide to get out where we are rather than pay this guy over 30000 won.  We all throw in our money and I begrudgingly pay the driver. He pops the trunk and gets out of the car to hand us our bags  (which must be part of the deluxe experience). I snatch my bag out of the cab drivers hand and we look at one another for a while. I study his face. He studies mine. His eyes narrow and he mutters something to me as he is getting into the driver’s seat. I notice that my friend forgot to shut the backseat passenger door. The three of us look at each other thinking the same thing: should we shut it?  Before we know it the driver pulls off with the backdoor still ajar. We watch frozen with our mouths open. The car moves close to the side of the road. So close that the open door is in danger of hitting a pole, tree, or pedestrian. He doesn’t drive more than 10 feet before the door clips a street light on the edge of the sidewalk, slamming the door shut. The cab screeches to a complete stop. We catch a glimpse of the driver looking around frantically not knowing exactly what happened. The three of us erupt in laughter while we search for another taxi.

We jump  into a new cab and two minutes later arrive at the beach.

The highlight of the trip came about an hour later at an Indian restaurant called Namaste. Delicious.

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