The First 72 Hours in South Korea

June 30, 2011

airport

I’ve seen a number of blogs covering their authors’ first day in a foreign country, and I have to say I didn’t really do a thorough job of it for Korea. Granted, I had arrived hot and sweaty to find it pouring rain and facing a four-hour bus ride, but who hasn’t? Rather than focus on the negatives of the adjustment from an exhausting 11-hour flight to settling in the land of the morning calm, I’d like to try and give you newbies a timeline covering both sides of the story, and hopefully provide a sense of order in what is a chaotic time for all of us. My first three days in South Korea.

Day 1, 5:00 AM

Arrive at Incheon International Airport. I’m one of those travelers who remains convinced his bags will be among those lost in transit; with every pass of that luggage carousel, my anxiety doubled: “They’re not going to be here… they must have been rerouted to Honolulu… oh god, what am I going to do…? I have a bus across the country to catch!” In actuality, my bags have been misplaced only once in my jaunts abroad, but even then, it was probably the least desirable destination to lose one’s bags: Haiti.

In this case, though I was one of the last people hanging around watching the same piece of black luggage pass by again and again and pretending to study the stamp in my passport like it contained vital information for my time in Korea, my familiar Seven Continents tag against a beige fabric caught my eye and I was good to go. Crisis averted.

Exiting customs, I quickly searched for the golden arches associated with some of the most disgusting food on the planet, and a pretty surefire way to ensure foreigners meet a company representative. At this time, I was unaware of my recruiter’s role in my coming to Korea. Although their company did email me the necessary paperwork, it seemed, compared to the certificate of authenticity required for Japanese visas, that I could have handled most of the bureaucratic nonsense on my own in Korea. Nevertheless, I was grateful a Mr. Kang soon met up with me and was there to guide me to the airport shuttle.

While waiting, I couldn’t help but feel so totally content at being back in Asia. Here was Family Mart, with its… oooh, not so familiar products. Once again, I was one of the few white faces in a sea of Koreans. Random western celebrities endorse Korean products and services; Pierce Brosman’s 007 persona seemed to beckon me towards the Lucky Seven Casino in Seoul. I was just standing there, in the middle of the arrival lounge, grinning like an idiot at anything and everything. And loving it.

Mr. Kang soon brought me back to reality, however, as we finally boarded the bus and made our way to east Seoul. I can’t remember too much about that journey: giggling at the Korean on the highway signs; ignoring my instinct to keep my eyes open as I dealt with exhaustion and the sound of rain plastering the windows. I might have slept, but I can be sure I didn’t say a single word to myself or my fellow travelers. Just too early for conversation (ironic that I now teach classes at the same time).

I was completely disoriented coming into Seoul. The only things that stick are a bunch of identical grey apartment buildings and the yellow guidelines on the sidewalks for blind pedestrians. Having seen the movie Inception the week before, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would awake from this dream of being in Korea and find myself in my bed, fifteen years old, ready to go to high school. Korea was preferable.

8:05 AM

My bus to Bugu, though I didn’t know it at the time. The only thing I had to go on, destination-wise, were the Korean characters I had written down in my moleskin journal in Dallas, the arrow pointing to —> 부구 on my ticket, and a general sense of where I’d be on the east coast. I had no clue as to what route the driver would take getting over there, and followed it as closely as I could on my Moon handbook map. I’m usually not so pent up about taking transportation in what I know is a reliable country, but I wanted the travel part of my journey (yes, there’s a difference) to be done with. Take a nap. Surf the internet. Go for a run in a new city. Try some Korean food. Having taken two airports for 15+ hours and ridden a bus into the heart of a foreign city, I had no patience left. Sad.

However, I couldn’t help but notice my driver seemed to be completely insane, darting in and out of traffic, driving on the access road, braking suddenly and gunning it whenever he could break away. Although my stomach took to it rather well, my brain was still trying to wrap itself around this concept: “Is this how all Korean bus drivers are? I never read about this!” Yes, they are. ESPECIALLY if they’re late.

12:30 PM

After ignoring the assigned seats, positioning myself closer to the front of the bus, and asking the driver two times to be let off in Bugu, we finally reached the small, small, small town. With each village we passed en route, I started imagining it to be my future home: “Oh, they have a giant crab statue, I can use as a landmark for Couchsurfers. Oh, there’s a hot springs; I’ll love going there every day. Ooooh, look at that beach! That’s gotta be my town!” Not so, but Bugu still had plenty of character for small-town Korea. For one, I knew it to be the home of a nuclear power plant, which provided big city amenities to workers. And second, it was a short commute to Deokgu Hot Springs, one of the main reasons I had decided on this area.

My bags were safely stored underneath the bus, so I assumed the driver would exit and open the hatch, as I had seen on countless Greyhound buses and MegaBuses in the US. When I said “bag” to the driver twice, he simply gestured down the stairs, probably curious as to why I was telling him about my bags. In Korea, you load up and offload your own luggage. Anyone who’s seen an ajumma hauling her wares on a local bus can confirm this (though sometimes a stranger helps out). It just hadn’t occurred to me.

Fortunately, I found my boss waiting for me with a car as soon as I had removed my black duffel and began pulling out the rolling luggage. He greeted me in English, and seemed very amicable, guiding me to the car where his four-year old boy was waiting, watching cartoons and picking his nose… later, he tried to rub them on me, but I’ll save that story for another day. Chan, as he told me to call him, drove me about 100 meters east to the apartment which would be my home for the next year. Inside, Ben, the outgoing teacher, was waiting with bags in hand. In retrospect, I wish I had been a little friendlier to him, maybe asking him out for a beer or something. But with my fatigue and his reluctance to talk, we kind of fell into a pattern of using Chan as an intermediary.

Lunch was 돈까스 in the “city” designed for the nuclear power plant workers. It’s one of the more elaborate meals I’ve had in Korea, with appetizers, side dishes, the main course, and dessert. After that, I couldn’t do much more than sleep for a few hours, telling Ben I’d like to meet up with him later that afternoon so he could show me around the town.

6:00 PM

I remember nothing of this tour as I was getting ready to pass out. Ben showed me where the five-day market would be, the local grocery store, the Family Mart, and pointed out the school and gym. The only thing that clearly stands out is me giving off the impression I was a pervert; I couldn’t help but notice that the apartment was attached to a noraebang, and asked Ben if he ever saw signs of prostitution in a town this size. He must have thought I was inquiring about the quality of service… ew… When we wrapped things up at the end of the day, him to the Green Motel and me to my new apartment, that was the last time I saw any foreigner for two weeks.

More to come… maybe I should have called this entry the first 24 hours?

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