Thursday, September 01, 2005


Just the facts

Or, at the very least, an approximate representation of same. It becomes readily apparent, after less than a week on the ground, that if I don't get busy, and quick smart, on a description of the trip, rather than my state of mind during it, I'm likely to lapse into a teacher's diary, and will get seriously stuck into descriptions of classroom settings, as that's quickly becoming my everyday world. I think I had one hour's free time between arriving and teaching, so Gangneung looks to be somewhat defined by that work, though there are a couple of National Parks, within which there are Zen temples, that I plan on hiking into at the earliest possible opportunity. There's much to be seen on the ground, of course, but S. Korea's northwest coast seems to have largely abandoned the fishing trade as a mug's game, and has taken to trolling for tourists, instead. Of the five people age 21 or over that can both speak English and know me, two of them have made much of just how many buildings have gone up in Gangneung in the past 10 years. It looks it. The city is not pretty, or at least not in the way Munich was pretty, and there's a lot in the way of eyesores about the town--much neon in any gathering of businesses, which seem to sprout up out of the ground wherever the proprietor deems it appropriate. Having lived the last 6+ years in cities notable for their strict building ordinances, I'm assuming they are a little more lax in this part of the world, and it certainly comes as no particular surprise that they should be, with many nations in this part of the world being rather famed for the esteem in which business-owners are held. Sidewalks are often lacking, or, where they do appear, the space that might otherwise be afforded a pedestrian is taken up by wares overflowing the shops that line them, cardboard boxes awaiting disposal, or--more charming--tarps covered with red chilis that have been set out to dry. The overall aesthetic appears to favor the modern, but with a clear space carved out at walking level for the clutter of being human. Don't even ask me how garbage disposal is carried out. All I know for certain is that it is, somehow, and although it appears to be a matter of setting one's waste out at random corners, I'm assured that there is an order to be followed, and transgressing the boundaries of that order may land an auslander in a spot of bother with neighbors. I'm gonna try to figure that out over the next couple of weeks, and if it eludes me at that point, may just have to wait until midnight to chuck my own mound of refuse out with the others. In the meantime, I'm sorting it out at home, keeping the different types separate in readiness for the day I understand it all.

Trip here: 3 hour flight to Istanbul, as mentioned in the last post, at which point I landed with not much of a clue as to how to proceed from there. In the kerfuffle leading up to my departure, not only did I have to display the tenacity of a pitbull to get my passport and tickets into my hands on time, but my flight got postponed. Just as well, really, because the travel agent who'd booked the flight was banking on my having the ticket--and my itinerary--in hand well before the departure date, and as that did not happen, I was not completely certain about where my flight was to leave from. Turns out the original flight was meant to leave Frankfurt, about 4 hours and 100 euros away from Munich. Fortunately, the leg of the flight from Istanbul to Seoul was postponed for over 12 hours, and the travel agent immediately got on the horn to find me a later flight departing Germany, this time from Munich. Also, as a result, the airline had committed to putting me up for the night as I was to be in Istanbul for 8 hours. So, alighting in Istanbul, I first followed the signs to baggage claim, but encountered passport control before I managed to get there. At this point I was told I needed to get a visa. So, slog back to the visa desk, where they lightened my load by 15 euros so I could get a visa in order to sleep in a hotel for three hours. Okay. Passport control behind me, I then went to claim my bag, but it wasn't there. So here's Tchitch, fresh out of Germany, still in that mid-and-immediately-post flight mindset that dictates that all communication that is not in English is automatically in German, trying to find out from the service staff where my bags might be. After about an hour's legwork, and a couple of game service workers later, I decided I'd have to accept their word that my bag had been checked through to Seoul, rather than holding out for a physical inspection of it. Then down to the lobby, where I encountered two men offering me taxis in the brief time it took me to walk from one end of the lobby to the other, and was able to find the appropriate desk to secure my room, where I preceded to wait an hour for the bus that would take me to the hotel. While there, I was engaged in conversation by a young man, also waiting for a hotel room for himself, his brother and his father. He of course had me pegged for an American--god only knows what pheromones we put off, because I don't do a lot of talking when traveling alone, I don't wear a baseball cap, have been to McDonalds precisely once in the last 5 years, and while I do have 5 kilos or so that I could afford to shed, I'm not a particularly big guy. He wanted to talk about America, of course, but his English was limited to very few words. His German, however, was good enough for our purposes--certainly every bit as good as mine--so we reverted to that, and I must say, since I have left Germany, I have had the chance to speak German twice, and on both occasions, while I don't imagine myself to have come off as particularly erudite, I did manage to hold up most of my end of the conversation. Hooray! I think I may have actually learned something during my stay. Give me another three years back there and I may even be able to deal with the big bad KVR. In the meantime, I'm desperately looking for a place where I might nab a cigarette, but as going outside entails coming back in through the metal detectors (which is no big thing, but just enough of an inconvenience to make me think better of it), I'm stumped for a while. I do finally see a Gloria Jean's within the airport, with a small lobby in which several people are sitting and smoking. So I stump up to the bar, thinking that perhaps the smoke is worth the price of a coffee, only all the coffee prices are in the local currency, which I do not know the exchange rate for, and although there seems a good chance they'll offer an exchange rate at a coffee shop in the airport, it doesn't seem to be a given. So out I go, again, in search of some other smokers' nook, can't find one, wonder briefly whatever became of the phrase "smoke like a Turk," and finally come back and see the father of the young man smoking, but without a coffee in front of him. So I ask, and it turns out that the coffee purchase is not required to sit there, which I promptly do.

The bus takes about an hour to pick us up, at which point we are shuttled to a hotel some 5 kilometers distant, down a busy street at midnight that seems to be having some fairly serious construction being done to it--it's midnight, and at one point the shuttle bus flashes past a group of about twenty men, working on the meridian armed with nothing more substantial than shovels. All the while red flags with a yellow crescent emblazoned on them, and uplit mosques along the road and dotting the landscape. It's already starting to get a bit dizzying. The hotel doesn't look to be particularly well-appointed, more for the neighborhood it is set in than for any characteristic of the hotel itself, but there's a fairly spectacular view of a mosque on a distant hilltop from my window. In the morning (3 am), we are awakened. I spend about 10 minutes trying to figure out why getting out of bed is preferrable to staying in it, but finally get up, stumble to the continental breakfast (which includes, among other things, olives), finish up with plenty of time to spare before the bus is due to take us back to the airport, and, in spite of the fact that people have been smoking in the lobby every time I've been down there (this in spite of the apparent lack of receptacles in which to deposit the butts...and no sign of those butts being discarded on the marble of the lobby floor), I decide to be a good American and step outside for my smoke. Probably not the smartest of possible moves, but one that at least allowed me to get some sense of bearing, because pretty much every taxi that passed by slowed down--and some even stopped--for me. That's to say nothing of the two hookers that were working their way down the street, with plenty of cars that were not for hire stopping to talk to them. Fortunately, the twinned attraction presented by myself and the two hookers remained resolutely separate, because I've no real clue how I might have fended off a proposition delivered in Turkish. I'm sure I would have looked a poor alternative in any case.

So, shuttle back to the airport at 4 am, this time with the shuttlebus entirely peopled by Koreans save for myself and one woman--from New Zealand, I later learned--and no surer sign of my experience to come could have been asked for. A brief last look at cultural diversity during the 2 1/2 hour wait for the connecting flight, wandering the mall within the Istanbul airport's international terminal (and buying a carton of Gauloises to see me through the first two weeks of my stay in Korea), then off to Seoul on a plane that by all appearances had a single human being on board (excluding flight staff, who, I suppose, are human beings) not of Asian descent. Aside from a brief encounter with a passenger from another plane at Incheon airport, I've yet to encounter any human being more exotic than myself since that time. And I feel it, believe me...and will quite likely post more on the subject in the near future.

Seoul: Visa was handled prior to arrival, a necessity when one takes employment in Korea...or, well, there is one way around that requirement, should one want to get a sense of how it all looks on the ground: you come in as a tourist, scout out job opportunities, then make a visa run to, say, Japan, wait there for two days, get your visa and return for work. Either way, if you enter Korea with a work visa pending, your entry constitutes reason to cancel your application. For my purposes, my visa was already sorted, so passport control was no big deal, and customs was a quick nod at the clerk, who waved me through. The biggest difficulty I encountered through all of this was an older woman who seemed genuinely confused as to which line she was supposed to be in--in spite of the fairly clear markings, in both Korean and English, directing those waiting in line to either the Korean nationals booths, or all other nationalities. She was, in fact, standing in the right line, but wanted confirmation of some sort, so I offered same, whereupon she began exchanging vital stats with me, and it turns out that she's (she says) employed by one of the universities in Seoul, and has been for a few years now, which leaves me rather puzzled as to why she would be more confused than I am. I meet up with her, by chance, at the baggage claim area, whereupon she starts asking me the location of a hotel, and I'm of course clueless, and not only that, I'm keenly aware that there is a driver somewhere out there in the lobby that is awaiting my arrival, so I beg off, my bags having arrived safely with me, come out into the lobby and begin searching for someone holding a card with my name. I find the driver, who whisks me out to his car (it's a fair walk, and though I only manage half a smoke, I do manage to get a little fix in on the way). He speaks no English, so the ride into town is quiet, except for when my contact--the recruiter who landed me the present gig--calls on the cell phone to tell me how the arrangements are to proceed, and also to let me know that I'm being driven by her brother. I try to send a text to my girls in Munich, but I'm off the grid at any price, and have been since (my cell phone in Germany was Vodafone, and it was an ancient piece of equipment that I was given by a Polish friend when they upgraded their own phone) does continue to function as a handy little watch/electronic telephone book, and if I'm really bored, I can listen to the selection of possible rings, but that's about all it's good for in these quarters. Good news is, European and Korean power points are the same--two round prongs of the 220V variety--so I can keep my fancy new watch charged up and ready to use without further hassle, to say nothing of the laptop I'm using, just one of the many ways my friend Wolfgang has helped to make this an easier move.

After a couple of stops, the nature of which is uncertain (one to speak to a group in a taxi, one to speak to a police officer...I assume in both instances to ask for directions, but do not know this), we meet my contact, she introduces herself (this after about 2 months of correspondence over phone and computer), and they take me to my room, in a motel that is nearby where my contact lives. It's an interesting first slice of Seoul: the hotel is well kept, there's a round bed, a large, flatscreen television, a computer with internet access (which I make use of to send word to my girls, because there is, by all appearances, no phone in the room), a shower, but no curtain (something that defines my apartment as well--there is a showerhead, i.e. a hose with a showerhead attatched, but nothing to separate the shower area from the rest of the bathroom--just wash and let the water go down the drain in the center of the bathroom), and a tube of toothpaste with a cap that does not twist off, or have a flip-top lid, but pulls off. It's the toothpaste that does it for me, because I remember, when we first moved to Sydney, having a horrible time learning to deal with the light switches, which were not only quite different from those in the US, but also had an "on" position that required one push down, rather than up. Little shit like this adds up over the course of a few months, and while I'm usually quite good at saving the real frustration for those moments when static in cultural transmission has reached an unacceptable level, such as, for example, when we shipped our possessions from Alaska to Sydney, only to have them all shipped BACK to Alaska, thus requiring we write several letters of complaint to the Aussie Post...all got cleared up in the end, but it was enough to send me teetering over the edge, and of course, in expressing that frustration, inevitably found myself turning upon the light switches as a constant, daily source of stress. It's all enough to find me nodding to Waits' "Tom Traubert's Blues," when he sings "No one speaks English and everything's broken," even though my wife thinks me horribly insular when I do so. Anyway, there's enough large scale unfamiliarity to keep me quite busy for some time, thanks, but I can see that toothpaste cap becoming a central feature of any rants I might want to get off my chest in the future.

My time for writing is running out, and I need to get this saved so I can post it this evening at the hagwon, so, while there are further notes re: the bus trip to Gangneung, they'll have to wait for next time. If I don't manage it before, I'm hoping to get caught up on the travel journal this weekend--though, as always, things are afoot on the Triplopia front, as well, and I'm looking at some hefty work in that direction over the next two weeks as well. I suspect I am going to be doing one helluva lot of typing during this coming year. Dunno why I think that, but
I do.

All right. Til next time--tchitch

Fascinating. Thanks for sharing - keep us posted.
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