Page Eight
Donghae - the East Coast

The intervening weekend and week flew by. The weekend was spent finally getting my place all situated and delving more into the joys of soju, the traditional Korean alcohol. One was productive, the other fun. Even got a bunch of letters written to send home. Couldn’t wait to tell everyone I knew how well things were going. Even tried to convince some of my friends to come over and join me. Life was good.

The next week was more of the same class-wise. Except for the one class I’d been late to that first day (which seemed like months ago already) all the classes were going fine. Was still uncomfortable in Whitney’s class but I definitely found myself bummed one day when she wasn’t there. That feeling caught me off guard – teaching was turning me into a performer and without someone to perform to class seemed empty. Was I ever relieved when she was back the next day.

By the end of the second week we basically had the alphabet down in Korean class. It was great finally being able to try and read some of the things around me. Way too slow still (by the time I figured out what was written on the buses they were already pulling away) but rewarding nonetheless. Also my vocabulary was picking up, as was the speed at which I could speak and comprehend the language. I could almost get out the brutally long ‘an-yong ha-sip-ni-ka’s (hellos) and ‘kam-sa-hap-ni-das’s (thank yous) without people having to take a coffee break in between starting and finishing.

Before I knew it Saturday morning had arrived and we were all standing at the train station trying to figure out our tickets. Turned out that Nick had gotten four tickets on the 9 o’clock train and one on the 9:45 train - but only for the first half of the journey. After that we’d all be on the same train for the final leg of the trip. While they’d been getting the tickets I’d been staring at the station’s big map of Korea trying to figure out exactly where it was we were going. When I rejoined everyone it had somehow been decided I was to be the one off on my own for awhile. Lovely.

“If it’s a problem mate I’ll go alone.”

Those gentlemanly Brits, “nah, no problem. I’ve got a couple of guidebooks I can read. Maybe do a little writing . . .”

“Thanks mate. We’ll meet you when you get in to Wonju. Wherever the hell that’s at.”

Teach me to wander off alone while people are picking up tickets. It was to be my first time on a train but, realistically, what could go wrong? I looked forward to the chance to be alone and get some reading done. Stare out the window at the countryside. With an evil look at Ian (Mr. Experienced Traveler had known right where to be when the tickets were handed out) I bid everyone a cheery see-you-later. Then it dawned on me I had to kill 45 minutes at this jammed train station with no seats and nothing to do. I went and stared at the map some more.[1]

Finally it came time for my train. I shuffled my way with the mob past the ticket stamper guy and onto the platform. From there I just followed the signs and numbers to my train, found my seat and relaxed. Thank god most transportation in Korea comes with English subtitles.

I stared out the window for most of the trip. As a country boy it was nice to finally see something besides buildings and asphalt. Rice paddies, I’d glimpsed them from the plane on the way in but here they were right outside the window. The countryside didn’t look much like I’d envisioned (nothing like M*A*S*H). It actually looked pretty modern – concrete houses, each with its own TV antenna, greenhouses, plenty of machinery – no water buffalo anywhere. Definitely different, but hardly Third World.

After doing some reading and some more staring (and definitely being stared back at by the more observant of the people outside my window) the train finally pulled into Wonju. Sure enough, Nick was waiting for me as I got off the train.

They had found some dive near the station and sat there the whole time they were waiting. At least they’d ordered something. I sat down, gave Ian a hard time for ditching me and stole some of their food before we had to take off. Our lovely tour of scenic Wonju was at an end. Basically just a gritty industrial city that had grown up at the crossroads of a couple of the main Korean rail lines. A place many went through but where few stayed.

It was different being on a train with a group of foreigners. Before I’d just been an oddity, now I was part of a full-scale spectacle. If we thought we got stared at in Seoul the further we got into the country showed us what real staring was. Other than U.S. soldiers it was still very rare for outsiders to live in Korea at that point. So seeing a group of them on a train bound to, basically, the middle of nowhere, must have been quite a shock.

As the ride progressed we started ignoring the staring in favor of worrying about where we were going to stay. We were way off the beaten path and our guidebook, Lonely Planet[3], wasn't much help. We (I mean Nick) had chosen where we were going because it was the end of the line and the map showed a nice beach. Once we got off we put Nick in charge of finding us a place to stay, a yogwan,[4] while the rest of us sat down and waited nervously. Soon he came back with some guy in tow, “he says he knows a great place out in the country on the beach. What do you say we grab a couple of cabs and head out lads?”

I don’t know how he did it, or where he found the guy but the place proved to be stunning. Set on a beautiful (and empty) sandy beach between two low hills the yogwan wasn’t much but everything else was. “We’ll take it,” showed on everyone’s face as we pulled in. Since we all decided to cram into one room (it was 'sleep on the floor' anyway) the price only came to a few bucks each. Lonely Planet would have been proud. So, we paid off the cabs, thanked them for overcharging us and got ready to go swimming.

This is when we found out why the beach was empty. When the yogwan owner saw what was about to happen he came running up and in his best sign language (we’d only had two weeks of Korean, what do you expect?) indicated the water was too cold to swim in. After coming this far we decided to risk it. The water was cold but hardly unswimable. It turned out to be a great afternoon on what was basically our own private beach.

We found out later that the water actually didn’t get much warmer. It just wasn’t swimming season yet. That, apparently, is July and August and ONLY July and August. You could swim then with no problem but woe unto the person who swam on June 30 or Sept. 1 – you’d get sick from the cold. This made future travel planning much easier. Avoid July and August when the beaches held more people than a rush hour Seoul subway and go in June or September when the weather was still great but the beaches were empty.

After a few hours at the beach we dined on seafood so fresh we chose from aquariums and the yogwan owner’s wife fixed it up for us – all in an empty, open-air restaurant right on the beach. If I thought things had been good before nothing could touch how I felt now. For dessert I decided to go for another quick swim.

I stripped back down to my swimming suit, took off my glasses and jumped in. Soon I was out far enough in the night sea that the beach was only a dark outline. When I paused to catch my breath and get my bearings I overheard some people yelling on the beach. Since it was all in Korean I didn’t pay much attention. The next time I paused the yelling was still going on. What kind of rude asshole stands on a beach yelling for five minutes without shutting up?

This time I treaded water while listening and squinted for a closer look. There was more than one person, all men, and they were standing in about the same spot where I had left my clothes. In addition they appeared to be yelling in my direction. Hmm, maybe I’d better check this out.

As I swam in it was still too dark to see much (plus I’d taken off my glasses) but I could tell I was the one they were shouting at. Once they saw me coming the shouting died down as they waited for me to get in. That’s when I got the scare of my redneck life. They were a squad of soldiers out patrolling the beach. I stepped out of the water to look down the barrels of three K2 army rifles and into the eyes of one very pissed-off sergeant. Of course the looks on their faces when they saw I was a foreigner were pretty shocked as well. Suddenly Sarge barked out an order and they lowered their guns. But they still had them. And I didn’t. And I was pretty fucking nervous.

“You! No swimming!” That was Sarge.

“But I . . . uh . . . sure. No . . . problem. No . . . swimming.” Speak slow with no sudden movements and maybe I’d get out of this.

“North Korea soldiers, night, maybe swim here. So no night swimming. Okay?”

“Okay, not . . . a  . . . problem. I go . . . my yogwan . . . now. Okay? Sorry!” Apparently Sarge’s English was better than mine.

“Hey, what do you do?”

“Uh, I’m  . . . an . . . English teacher, . . . in Seoul.”

“I’m from Seoul. Maybe when I’m finished my military service you can teach me English?”

“Sure, anytime. ECC in Chongno. Call me.”

“Okay. Bye. Don’t forget, no night swimming.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I won’t forget. I’ll tell my friends too.”

“Okay, good. Bye-bye.”

And with that I shakily picked up my things and stumbled back up to the yogwan.

“What took you so long?” Ian asked, “I was about ready to come get you.”

“Well, I got stopped by some soldiers who almost shot me for being a North Korean spy trying to sneak ashore.” You ever need a line to stop a conversation try that one.

“Apparently you’re not allowed to swim at night. They patrol the beach to keep spies from sneaking into the country. When I didn’t answer their shouts and immediately swim back in they must have thought they’d bagged a spy for sure. You should have seen the looks on their faces when they saw I was a foreigner.”

With that I sat down and told them about my night’s swim. They were pretty unanimous about staying in the rest of the night. “No reason to get shot the first night of the trip,” as Nick put it. So we sat around and got drunk and wished there were some women around. Another dull day in the life of an expat.

That night when we all went to bed we were confronted with a problem – we had to leave our shoes outside. Not just outside the room but really outside. No shoes inside is pretty standard throughout Asia and generally no problem but this time we were all a little nervous. What if someone came along at night and stole them? What the hell would we do then? Of course the idea of some thief sneaking around at night stealing giant foreigner shoes from in front of yogwans was ridiculous. Finally about half of us took (not wore) our shoes into the room and set them on our pile of bags.

The great shoe dilemma wasn’t to be our only problem that night. Since it still wasn’t officially summer and therefore still ‘cold’ outside the owner had decided to turn our floor[5] heat on. It would have been perfect in January but in mid-June it was stifling. I’ve been in saunas where I didn’t sweat half as much. Most of us barely slept a couple of hours that night – we woke up tired, dehydrated and pissed.

The fresh morning breeze made things better though. As did the view of the sun working its way up the sky on ‘our’ beach. After clearing our heads with a swim and cold shower we sat down to figure out what to do next. I was all for staying right where we were but the others wanted to move up the coast and see what else we could find. We finally decided to try and get some rides back into the town’s bus station. There we could buy tickets to move further up the coast for Sunday night and then head back to Seoul by train on Monday.

The owner ended up piling all of us into the back of his truck and personally taking us into town. The sight of five foreigners sitting in the back of a truck in the middle of nowhere damn near caused accidents people were staring so hard. Relaxed and stress free after a day at the beach we just waved back and smiled.

Once back in town we checked our maps and bought bus tickets for a resort area up the coast. With that we had some time to kill and decided to grab lunch . . .

Suddenly all hell broke loose. Air raid alarms sounded, men with whistles popped out, people started hustling off the streets, traffic pulled off to the side of the road. We could hear jets screaming overhead. The once crowded sidewalks emptied almost instantly.

            “What in the hell is going on? Those are air raid sirens.” That was Steve, our resident ex-military guy only a few months out of Saudi and Desert Storm. “Maybe we should get off the streets. Duck into one of these buildings.”

            Since we were the only pedestrians left outside we decided that might be a good idea. ‘When in Rome, . . .’ after all.

            “Do you think it’s the North?” Ian asked, “maybe they’re finally attacking.”

            “In that case we’d better find out how to get down south to Pusan,” Steve answered. “It’s the only place that’ll be safe.”

            With thoughts of 'here goes my exciting new life overseas' I ventured that, “most people don’t seem that worried. Everybody’s off the road and stuff but nobody’s really panicking or going crazy or anything.”

            “Then what the hell’s going on? What kind of place has air raid sirens going off, jets screaming overhead, this is crazy.” Ian wasn’t happy. We milled around and waited. We couldn’t exactly go anywhere with all the traffic stopped and everyone, apparently, forced to stay inside.  

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, everything stopped. The air raid sirens went silent, the official looking men with the whistles and flags motioned for traffic to start back up, people started to filter back onto the sidewalks, everything returned to normal. Even the sound of the jet engines seemed to fade in the distance. Just then a passerby, noticing five foreigners standing around looking very bewildered, stopped and pointed to his watch.

            “2:10, all clear. Go ahead.”

            “What was that?,” we all asked at the same time. “Is North Korea attacking?,” Ian added.

The guy got a big kick out of that. Through his laughter he assured us that, “no North Korea. Just drill, only drill.” And with that he walked away, still laughing to himself about the weird foreigners.

That’s how we all experienced our first air raid. Turns out they pretty much have them once a month (sometimes they ease up on the big cities to keep from pissing everybody off) year round. On the 14th or 15th of every month at 2 in the afternoon you can pretty much bank on there being an air raid drill. Out in the sticks people take it pretty seriously – you didn’t see too many people moving around or driving. Seoulites however are far too cool to be bothered into not rushing around for ten minutes a month. The sidewalks were almost always packed, traffic moved wherever the police and volunteers were a little sparse and the general attitude was far different from our country town experience [6].

I’d end up with the same attitude as the Seoul people before long. By the time I left I’d gotten to where I just ignored the sirens whenever I was on my bike. Pulled down my visor and just drove around all the cops. Made great time – the roads were mine with the rest of the traffic halted and forced to pull over. No lights to worry about, clear road, and as long as I didn’t run into a cop it was heaven.

That time in Donghae however we just sheepishly walked off to a restaurant. Definitely gave us something to talk about over dinner. Steve regaled us with tales of SCUD missile attacks in Saudi during the Gulf War. This was old hat for him. Pretty new for the rest of us. Mentally we’d been halfway to Pusan, trying to figure out a way to get a plane to Japan. Had never imagined myself as a war refugee before. I didn’t need this. Everyone’s stress levels were back up.

Fortunately we had a very nice, relaxing bus ride ahead of us. The uncrowded bus (out here everyone got lucky with seats apparently) followed a course that took us right along the coast. The journey offered magnificent views of the Sea of Japan[7] out the window as we hugged the shoreline for most of the hour-long trip, gawking and trying to line up decent pictures the whole way.

Upon arrival we again put Nick in charge of getting accommodations while the rest of us took off to explore the beach. This new place was definitely a lot bigger – a real resort area. Of course since it still technically wasn’t summer it was deserted. It may as well have been January from the way the place looked. For a while we were concerned about Nick not being able to find us a place to stay but before long he popped up – this time with an old woman in tow.

“Says she’s got a decent place just back of the beach.” How Nick talked to these people I’ll never know but he always seemed to get his point across. The old lady didn’t seem to mind having a group of big, loud foreigners staying at her place so we went back to take a look. Not as nice as the place before but considering our choices (none) it wasn’t bad. We settled on two smaller rooms and this time made sure the heat was turned off. It promised to be a restful night.

Some of the lads (all this British was beginning to effect my pure American English) decided to go down to the beach and have a swim but I was about swum out. I decided a bottle of soju and a book of postcards would be a better way to go. The old lady had a table set up outside under the sun with views of the beach so I sat down and had a go at the bottle and the cards. In a tight race the bottle beat out the writing by about three cards. Just in time too – everybody was back and ready for dinner.

Since our choices were basically fish or sand we decided to go with the former. Same as the night before we got a price list and went to the fish tank. We figured out how much we wanted to spend and then pointed to the price and a lovely little flounder swimming around in the tank. I tried some Korean but don’t think it added much to the pointing. “We’ll have this please,” versus ‘point at price’, ‘point at tank’. Equally effective – perhaps I was beginning to catch on to Nick’s secret.

With that we sat down to enjoy what turned out to be our own private restaurant on our own private beach, again. This was getting to be addictive. We were wondering how we were going to readjust to Seoul’s crowds. The meal was wonderful, not too filling but still pretty good. We were just debating whether or not to order another round – it had cost us about $7 each at this point, when the owner came and told us our bill. Something didn’t seem right. I had expected to hear something around 25,000 won but what he’d said had been different, not even close. I asked him to repeat it. Again I couldn’t quite get it. For a moment I thought I had it but then realized that would have been 150,000 won. No way. I asked him to write it down.

That’s when the shit hit the fan. I should’ve trusted my ears – he had said 150,000! Suddenly our $7 had turned into $40 each.

            “What!! No way we’re paying that,” Ian expressed everyone’s thoughts. “We pointed to the price. We told him how much we wanted to pay.”

            Steve was next, “tell him we’re just poor English teachers. There’s no way we can pay that, even if it was right.”

            By now the owner knew from our expressions that something was wrong. First I asked if that was really the price. Then attempted to explain that something was wrong. We’d expected to pay 25,000 rather than 150,000. There wasn’t even a 150,000 won item on the menu. The owner was adamant though – 150,000.

            It was my turn to fan the flames, “he’s trying to rip us off. Look there isn’t even anything close to this price on the menu. What the hell kind of fish costs $175 anyway? The damn ocean’s right there.”

            “What did you say to him?” I’d forgotten Steve wasn’t studying Korean.

            “I just told him it should be 25,000 and showed him the menu with what we ordered and pointed out the lack of something costing his fucked-up price.”

            “You didn’t tell him we were just poor English teachers? Tell him that, tell him we can’t afford it.” Steve was really into this ‘poor English teacher’ thing. He also really overestimated my Korean ability.

            “I don’t know if that’s going to work. They think all us English teachers are just here to get rich.” With that I attempted to get across Steve’s point in what most have been the world’s second most garbled bit of Korean (after my failed effort at the airport). What came out was something along the lines of, “English teachers, no money. No pay, too expensive.”

Now the owner was getting concerned. He had a group of very irate people, foreigners nonetheless, telling him they couldn’t pay. Basically that he was trying to rip them off. “You ate it, you bought it,” was the gist of his reply, “150,000.”

            “What’d he say?,” Steve was hoping the ‘poor teacher’ thing had worked.

            “No luck. He’s saying the fish we ate was 150 grand and that’s what we owe. Like it or not.”

            “Not, there’s no way we ordered that. We pointed to the damn menu. This asshole’s trying to cheat us. Forget it, let’s just pay the 25,000 and leave.” Ian’s plan sounded good but when we tried it the guy started yelling and threatening us with the police. After a quick consultation we decided to take our chances with the police. I told him to go ahead and make the call.

So we sat around and waited until the cops came. We’d forgotten it was Sunday night in some sleepy little resort town. The owner had been forced to call the chief of police at his home and, from the way the guy looked when he walked in, drag the poor man out of bed. Seldom have I seen such a look of, ‘what did you get me into?’ as on the chief’s face that night. We honestly felt sorry for the poor guy.

            “He doesn’t look too happy to be here,” Steve noticed.

            “What, did he just get out of bed?” Ian added.

The chief took one look at us and went over to the store owner. Obviously the owner was filling him in on his version of the events. I didn’t catch much, other than ‘foreigner this’ and ‘foreigner that’. The chief appeared in no mood for a hassle – before we knew what was happening he had the owner give us a new bill. This one was for 100,000. We had come down 50,000 (about $60) in the space of two minutes - but were still a long way from 25,000. This caught us off guard. We’d thought it was an either-or situation. Now suddenly we had a third price. Welcome to Asia.

            “If it’s 100,000 then why did he try and charge us 150,000?” Ian kind of summed up our thoughts. “He’s trying to rip us off.”

            “The chief seems okay,” Steve added, “just show him what we ordered on the menu and tell him that’s what the bill should be.”

They could tell by our conversation that the new price plan wasn’t going over much better. With a sigh the chief came over to try and get our side. I got stuck with the job of trying to explain what had happened. Fortunately I had props – the fish tank and the menu. Between my pidgin Korean, pointing at the fish tank, showing what we had chosen from the menu and a good bit of miming I was able to get the gist across – no on 100,000 (or 150,000 for that matter), yes on 25,000. The chief took that back to the store owner. Ian laughed at my miming.

While the two of them talked we flipped through a pocket English-Korean dictionary to try and find some words we might need. While I was looking for ‘cheat’ and ‘translator’ everybody else was making suggestions.

            Steve was ready to take it to another level, “look up ‘embassy’ and ‘lawyer’, maybe that’ll get some results. Tell them we want to call our embassy and we want a lawyer[8]. That’ll wake’em up.”

            “Or try and find ‘translator’ – we could use a good translator. No offense but you’re not exactly fluent,” Ian was filling me in on something I didn’t already know.

            “Yeah, the embassy might have a translator on duty. We could call them and have them help.”

            “I don’t know Steve. It’s the Sunday night before a major holiday and the embassy people don’t exactly put in a lot of hours to start with.” I saw that as more of a last resort.

But I did like the idea of throwing around the words ‘lawyer’ and ‘US embassy’. Steve, used to being overseas as a soldier, had been trained to call the embassy or base at the first hint of trouble, “with the locals.” Believe it or not the US Army is big on avoiding bad public relations so Steve’s next remark shouldn’t have surprised me.

            “If the embassy's closed let’s try and get ahold of some soldiers. There are US bases all over Korea – I’m sure there’s one near here. They’ll be able to help. They always have translators . . .”

            That got Nick’s attention, “call in the Marines, eh Steve? Have them do a little landing right out there on the beach?”

            Ian liked the idea too, “yeah, a squad of marines would set this shit straight. Teach this guy a lesson in who not too rip off . . .”

From there the conversation degenerated into some very ugly comments about what a few GIs could do to this place and its owner. It was a good thing there wasn’t a translator around at that point. We were all getting sick and tired of sitting around dealing with this restaurant bill. By this time all we wanted to do was go back to our yogwan and sleep.

The chief came back over at this point. His long talks with the owner over a couple of free beers had apparently gotten him nowhere. He was hoping maybe we had changed our minds. Our marine talk had gotten me fired up though. I pulled out our list of words and started showering him with nouns (no time for the verbs). The conversation went sort of like this:

            “Hey, any chance of you guys reconsidering that 100,000 offer so we could all get the hell out of here? I just want to go home and you’re really fucking up my night.”


            “What, ‘embassy’?! What do you mean ‘embassy’?”


            “Lawyer? You want a lawyer?!" Americans and their damn lawyers . . .

            “Con artist!”[9]

            “Wait! Stop! Now let’s slow down here and take a look at that list of words. What else do you have on there?

            “ ‘Translator’ and well, we were looking for the Korean word for ‘soldiers’ but we didn’t have time.”

            “Translator and soldiers, great idea. Let me make a call.”

With that the chief went over and picked up the phone. After a heated conversation he came back over to us and said, in effect, the soldiers were on their way. One of them would be able to translate. He didn’t add, “so we can all get the hell out of here,” but his expression more than got that part across.

So we were stuck waiting, again. We’d been in the restaurant nearly two hours at this point and had no idea how long it would take the troops to get here. Though the idea that some US soldiers were coming definitely perked us up.

            “I can’t believe he called in some soldiers,” I said, “what the hell are we going to tell them?”

            “Just tell them the truth, that this son of a bitch is trying to rip us off and they need to napalm the place,” Ian said.

            “Just tell them the truth,” was Steve’s advice. “We ordered right off the menu, pointed to the tank, got our flounder and ate it. There shouldn’t be any problem in that.”

            “Yeah, the truth shall set us free and all that. It will be nice to have somebody who can actually do some real translating.” I was getting really tired of pulling this shit out of my ass. “ Good ole’ Teacher Yoo never prepared us for this.”

It didn’t take the soldiers that long to get there, with the crackle of walkie-talkies in they came. That was our second shock of the night – they were Korean soldiers. Probably a nearby unit patrolling the beach like the group I’d ‘met’ the night before. You could tell from their reaction that they were just as surprised to see us as we were to see them. The police chief quickly filled them in and explained our need for a translator. Soon one of the soldiers came up to us and in relatively decent English asked if there was a problem and if we needed a translator. Yes, on both counts, was our immediate answer.

For the third time that night I had to explain our situation to someone. Only this time I could use English. As I stood their telling the soldier of our plight, how we were being ripped off, hadn’t ordered anything that expensive, etc. I noticed the gun he had slung over his shoulder. From my height it seemed like I was staring down into the barrel of a K2 for the second time in as many nights. I was becoming way too familiar with this.

The soldier went back and explained our side to the chief and the owner. Not sure whether he added anything we hadn’t already gotten across but at least it was nice and clear now. The chief, who was by far the oldest person and therefore in charge, talked to the owner a little bit more and then had the soldier translate. Seems the owner insisted we had ordered the expensive fish from the tank and was still demanding 100,000.

Time to bring out the menu. We pointed out to our (rapidly getting frustrated) interpreter that there was nothing costing that much listed. This seemed to at least convince the soldier that we weren’t just trying to scam this poor restaurant owner out of some money. He was a little more energetic in his next translation for the chief, even pointing to the menu.

We had the owner there and he seemed to know it. A couple of more times back and forth and the price was suddenly down to 55,000. After that though the owner wouldn’t budge. Apparently this was his cost for the item (the one he'd tried to charge 150,000 for!!) and he wasn’t going any lower. Though more than double what we thought was fair, after nearly four hours we just wanted out of there. We pooled our cash, paid the man and got ready to leave.

When the chief realized we’d finally come to an agreement he was the happiest man in town. With a big smile on his face he gave me a hearty pat on the back and a nice handshake. With that we thanked our interpreter for his troubles, gave the owner one last glare and walked back to our yogwan. Two nights on the East Coast, two nights talking down the barrel of an automatic weapon. All I wanted now was some sleep.

After all that the rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. A nice swim the next morning before beginning our long trek back to Seoul. The bus ride back to Donghae was just as beautiful as it had been on the way out and this time, without any air raid drills, we actually got a chance to walk around the little town before hopping on the train. The trip back went pretty smoothly – we all slept the whole way. Once back in Seoul we had our first Western food in a few days (pizza) and then went home to write down all that had happened and get ready for work the next day. As first vacations go it had been a good one – teaching me more about Korea and Korean in a weekend than I’d learned in my month so far. I was definitely curious to see what life overseas had in store for me next.

[1] Too bad I hadn’t known my way around any better or I could have really killed the time in style . . . I was at Chongnyangni Station, near the (in)famous Chongnyangni 588 – Seoul's most famous red light district. Set up in broad daylight for all to see '588' (‘oh-pal-pal’) as it's called in Korean, is like nothing you ever expected to see in the ole' Hermit Kingdom. Dozens of small, 1-story buildings with sliding glass doors along the front, blazing red lights and two or three scantily clad young ‘hostesses’ awaited gaggles of lecherous, drunken businessmen. Each front room had a door, or sometimes just a curtain, that led to the private rooms in the back. . . . up

[3] The de facto traveler’s guidebook seems to have become Lonely Planet. Aimed toward those who fancied themselves backpackers or ‘travelers’ rather than mere camera toting tourists, they are filled with minute descriptions of all the low end grottoes where you could save a couple of bucks. As long as you never trusted their maps, added a few percent to their prices (depending on how old the book was) and didn’t delve too deeply into countries that weren’t ‘cool’ to the backpacker crowd (i.e. Thailand good, Korea bad), they usually proved okay in unfamiliar territory. up

[4] A low end inn/motel type place. More expensive places called themselves, oddly enough, hotels. Unless you were at an international hotel (Hilton, Hyatt, etc.) the difference between a hotel and a yogwan was basically a nicer lobby and about $100 a night. A lobby with some great plants and maybe a mini-waterfall, or a window slit and a key big enough to use as a club. Up

[5] Most buildings in Korea have traditional ‘on-dol’ heating. A unique and very comfortable system whereby pipes set under the floor distribute heat throughout the house. The pipes, attached to an oil or gas furnace (rarely wood anymore) carry heated air or water that radiates upward into the room, creating a very cozy environment for sitting and pondering the cold weather outside. Up

[6] In an interesting side-note they actually had to use the air raid sirens in Seoul in the late 90s when a defecting North Korean pilot flew into Southern airspace. Seems air defense authorities weren’t sure whether he was really defecting or simply using it as a ruse to sneak past anti-aircraft defenses with a couple of bombs strapped to his wings so they ordered the alarms sounded. Unfortunately the Seoul sirens had been turned off by a bureaucrat tired of having to deal with the drills . . . Oops! up

[7] Or ‘East Sea’ as it’s called in Korea. Calling it by the standard international name really irritates Koreans. According to them, at one time the standard international name was ‘East Sea’, but during the Japanese colonial period those darn scheming Japanese got everyone to switch to the ‘Sea of Japan’ instead.  Now there are continuous efforts to get world bodies to change the name – Microsoft even got into trouble in 1996 for calling it the ‘Sea of Japan’ in the Korean version of its encyclopedia software. All you mapmakers out there, beware! up

[8] In retrospect this might not have been such a bad idea. We did have Nick with us, a British citizen, and their embassies are usually quite helpful. Even at this early stage in my overseas career I knew the US embassy was the last place to call if you were in trouble in a foreign country. None of us were rich or well-connected so therefore ‘our’ embassy would want nothing to do with us. Up

[9] Yeah, it was actually in the dictionary. Up


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