Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Rawness

4:30 am. Before sunrise, in the last shadows of night before the light begins to creep through the smoky haze that is spread over Luang Prabang, I hear the drums. I open my eyes and let them adjust to the darkness of our hotel room. My hip is sore from the firm mattress but I feel rested, and after three days of waking before first light to the sound of the drums I am growing fond of this morning ceremony. Across the street at Wat Sene temple the drums are vibrating and the earth is listening.

The layers of drum beats are filtering through my morning grogginess. There is the immediate volume of the monks drumming across the street, hitting a large suspended drum and a small black gong with a heavy mallet. The wooden handle tightly gripped between the fingers of a thin Laotian monk. This happens twice a day. At 4:30 am and 4:30 pm the deep boom of the suspended drum, larger than an oil barrel and floating off the ground suspended by thick rope, sends low notes vibrating across the street and through the thin walls of our hotel. The monk playing keeps a steady beat. Standard time eighth notes that overlap and roll like a succession of waves. The sound envelops me until my eyes are fully open and my mind fully aware. It is then that I can hear all the layers of the cacophony onion that is peeling so nicely.

It is like a wolf pack call throughout the dry morning of this Southeast Asian hamlet. In between the fading of one boom and the start of another, I hear softer booms in the distance. Identical drums struck with identical mallets throughout the small city of Luang Prabang. Some are beating in unison but some are far off and the sound is delayed in reaching us on the outskirts of town. This sound delay creates a syncopated beat that feels intentional. The effect is thunderous. A continuous deluge of drum beats dancing through the empty morning streets. The last beat is struck and the final echo is resonating up and down the narrow alleyways and bouncing off the French style store fronts that line the main streets of a small city that feels like it is on the verge of blowing up as the next tourist hot-spot. Some might say it already has, and perhaps we were just fortunate enough to be there during a lull in the zoom lens and North Face onslaught of backpackers and day trippers. But after a week in Luang Prabang, and a week of 4:30 am wake up calls compliments of the monks next door, my sense is that this place is still raw. It may be cooked one day, but for now it is still raw.

There are pockets in the world, pockets of rawness where life does not flower and blossom, it explodes and oozes down the clay packed streets of a balmy Mekong River village; where entire families zoom helter skelter on a 400 cc motorbike along soft river roads. Four deep in a late eighties model Yamaha. Mom up front steering the beast with the youngest child swaddled in soft cloth hung around her neck. The eldest daughter riding behind mom and combing the hair of her grimy Barbie doll. Dad in back enjoying his morning cigarette and gently gripping the bike with his thighs, his beat rubber sandals dangling inches above the ground.

There are pockets in the world where life is not a fluid stream. It is a heavy torrent of water gurgling along ancient silted river banks. Where trees are slashed and burned and the thin sheets of river weed are dried and consumed with a fire-hot, red paste to create some idea of flavor. A thick river of life that consumes everything in its path and spits out wherever that vein meets the sea.

These pockets still exist. These pockets of rawness and devouring creation that make the hermetically sealed and loud mouthed airbag SUVS of the developed nations look like arrogant sociopaths. The rawness is not done for bravado, showmanship or stealthy attention. It is the way life exists in these pockets. It is the way life survives and the way these people eat. The world is raw and the safety and hardboiled eggs of the developed world are shattered into a gooey, stringy mess when you see a twelve year old girl behind the helm of a dilapidated motorbike. Dark skinned, bony arms reaching up to the handle bars. Dirty feet and sandals barely reaching the clutch as she pops the bike into third and glides through a soft right hand turn and then rips the throttle into the straight away sending the wind and sand and haze through her long dark hair. The ground is dropping away beneath her but her heart is cool and pumping blood with normal pressure. Her pupils are not dilated and her brain is not surging dopamine to her nervous system. She is not thrilled by this experience. She has been doing this everyday for the past two years. She is responsible for one third of the family income, and she wants to be to work on time. She glides past the tuk-tuk we have hired to navigate us through the simple streets of Luang Prabang. It seems like something is wrong. Like I should jump out and stop her and take her back to her family, or at the least plunk a helmet on her melon and wrap her up in reflective tape. But as she sails by, I see her younger brother is gripping to her sides and his small hands are barely holding on to her. His shit eating grin is priceless as his head peers out from behind her back, teeth catching grit the whole way. The rawness will continue. The world will spin out of control. The drumbeat of life will continue to follow its own scattered rhythm like a percussion set dropped down a metal stairwell. It’s all racket at first and only after straining do we hear and see and feel the raw beat of life.

Life oozes like thick puss from a fresh wound in these places. Pulsating life, thick with the rawness from living on the fringes, and we, in turn, experience this from the fringe. Photographing and eating and playing and stumbling through the beginning scraps of the language. We get only so close in the seven days we are here, but the rawness is inexorable. It consumes you and gobbles you up in the dense smoke of the suppressing afternoon heat. The bright orange glow of the sun like a pastel spotlight behind a soft veil. All the ambient light is diffused and the smoke sparkles in the air. You can feel the sunburn even though it doesn’t seem like it is there.

There is a rawness in the world that exists on rickety bamboo bridges guarded by a small woman with leather skin and three teeth. Selling passage across the bridge and bottled water and small handmade dolls. When you walk across the bridge you wonder, what would happen if this bridge collapsed? Where I come from, if a bridge collapses, sirens and lights come wailing down dense streets and people jump to the curb and clutch their children and thank an invisible god that the sirens and lights are not rushing towards them. They look with pity and secret relief that the bridge did not collapse while they were crossing, and the unfortunate ones who did feel the first tremors of the structure as it started to go are hooked up to tubes of life and quickly carted off in ambulances and helicopters where surgeons race against the clock to save them from meeting the same god the people on the street are thanking. In the rawness, you walk across the bridge and look down and think to that this might not be the worst way to go. I have lived a good life and travel has its risks. If this bridge does start to quiver, let’s make it quick and painless for everyone involved because I will definitely not hear sirens barreling towards me if it does decide to stop holding itself up.

The world is raw. A raw so deep you see it in every transaction of the day. You see it in every conversation you have with every person in every corner of that raw pocket of the world. A young girl at the night market wearing a money belt stacked with U.S. Dollars, Laos Kip, and Thai Baht. Armed with a calculator and the charm of a seasoned insurance salesman, she greets every customer with seductive English.

“Hello madam. You like jewelry? I have special jewelry for you.”

“How much for this one?”

“Kip or Dollar?”


“For you, twenty dollar.”

“Twenty dollars,” we dumbly repeat, playing the role of the curious tourist, and start to look at the jewelry that is carefully laid out on a dark blanket. It looks well made, but twenty dollars will buy us two meals (with drinks) and two one hour massages each. In the rawness the dollar is amazingly powerful, and we are planning on stretching ours as far as possible. We decline and start to walk away.

“Okay madam, for you special discount. Ten dollar.”

It is amazing. Three steps has just saved us fifty percent. We never purchase the earrings but we watch for a few minutes as this scene is replayed over and over as fresh faces pass the tent. The young girl has her routine nailed. Eye contact, posture, tone, and word choice. She would ace the persuasive speech in my Communications class. The dim lights and strong smells of the Luang Prabang night market add to the mystique. A tightly packed bazaar with cramped rows of tents and every night the same people hawking the same merchandise. Intricate tapestries, bed spreads, delicate wood carvings, t-shirts, jewelry, paintings, Buddha replicas, coffee, coin purses, local food, and the usual souvenirs that look cool under the soft lights and red tents but seem cheap and hackneyed once you take them out of your luggage after returning home. If you ask the merchants, everything is either made by them, their grandmother, or a monk that they know. I guess after waking up the city with their drums the monks spend a few hours carving Buddha replicas and sewing tapestries. We are shocked at the affordability of the night market. The rawness is working in our favor. One item in particular catches our attention – handmade slippers with bright patterns and thick cotton stuffing. Each slipper has a colorful elephant patch above the toes. Each slipper is unique. Each possessing a different color scheme and elephant design. We are intrigued. More importantly, we like to give unique gifts and we will be seeing a lot of family and friends this summer. We decide to buy twenty-seven pairs of elephant slippers. This is, of course, ridiculous, but we are not deterred. We make a list of family and friends that might enjoy a pair and set out to find our merchant. We find a small pregnant woman who has a wide selection of elephant slippers. We start to look them over and begin the opening round of negotiations-which is in our favor as we tell her that we wish to purchase twenty-seven pairs of elephant slippers. The haggling is conducted in a manner that will repeat itself every night that we return to the market. The merchants open with a price. They usually type this price into a large calculator and hand it to us. We look at it and look at each other and hem and haw for a few minutes and then type in half that number and had it back. They smile and laugh and look at us and then type in a number between the two and hand it back. This process repeats until a price is settled on that is seems fair for both sides. With elephant slipper lady the negotiations are quick, we settle a bit higher than usual as we eye her belly and picture the motorbike that she her family will need to purchase in the next few years so junior can deliver the cotton to grandmother on the outskirts of town so she can make more slippers, and she is clearly overjoyed as we start to pile twenty-seven pairs of slippers into a large garbage bag. When we pay her she thanks us profusely and takes the money and proceeds to whack every pair of slippers left on the ground. As she hits the slippers with money she chants, “lucky, lucky, lucky.” It turns out she was lucky because she did not return to the night market for the rest of the week. Apparently, twenty-seven pairs of elephant slippers warrants a week off in the rawness, but how long will that equation last?

This place is on the verge of getting cooked. It is still raw, but you can feel the temperature rising and you can sense the future. A time when the morning drums will be silenced due to complaints from the tourists in the hotels. The monks forced to receive their morning alms by special delivery because they can’t walk the streets without being harassed. Not harassed in a malicious way, but harassed by every person with a camera and a Facebook account. Every person that wants to snap a few shots and run to the nearest coffee shop with Wi-Fi and show the world the monks walking in the morning and collecting their meager meal of rice. Uploading photos while they download a double frappuccino and cheesy bacon croissant. It is a mixed feeling to be in this rawness. To be in it but to be a part of the cooking as well. To wake up early and watch the monks from a distance, trying to capture a few candid photos as they walk by, and then relaxing with a morning coffee and planning the events of the day. It is a hard balance to not fall into that alluring and comfortable role of being a tourist. Of spending such small amounts of cash in return for one week of a lavish lifestyle that we could not afford in any other pocket of the world. We embrace the rawness, we sense the burgeoning of a new era for this quaint Buddhist paradise, an era that is perhaps not entirely welcome, and we are adding to the searing of this life. We are adding to the culmination of turning on the television in ten years and seeing Luang Prabang as the number three tourist Mecca on the Travel Channel’s weekend marathon of one-hundred places you must see before you die. We will cringe and bite our lip and watch the fast moving clips of crowded streets that were once empty, of power boats that were once slow boats, of monks on display that were once beating drums and waking the city before the sunrise, of an air-conditioned mall that was once a tented night market, of a local girl handing out life vests for the power boat ride who was once motoring down dirt roads with reckless abandon with her brother in tow, and we will remember the rawness. We will remember the breaking point of this fragile city, and we will try to find the next one. The next raw, undiscovered pocket of life, and maybe then we will leave our cameras and gadgets at home.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


First day in South Korea -9/26/09 – Gyeongju (The Old Capitol)

Our first night camping in South Korea. The forest here is a close cousin to the damp woods of New England. Dense tree growth and moist rotting layers of ground cover. The pungent smell of fresh decay gives the air a sweet tinge. The campfire is hard to start with the soaked kindling we are forced to gather, but a fire does start. A fire with thick smoke that follows you whenever you stand up and spastically move to a new seat, wildly waving the froth away with both arms, only to repeat the dance when the relentless white clouds spewing form the logs find you again.

A fire starts and Amber chefs up a delicious green curry and Laura and Andy, our travel companions, colleagues, and friends, make excellent company. We set out from Seongnam at 10:00 AM this morning. A six passenger van rented from Seoul International School carrying the four of us to our first real adventure in South Korea. The four of is and a weeks’ worth of water, food, and camping gear. As Andy so appropriately said when we pulled off the highway, after four hours of driving due south on Korean Highway 1, and started driving through the first town we have visited outside of Seoul, “It’s my first day in South Korea.”

Six days shy of our two month anniversary in the Land of Morning Calm and we are finally able to let the spirit of adventure take over during this Chuseok Holiday. The rough equivalent of American Thanksgiving, Chuseok is the Korean Harvest Festival. Many of our students and Korean colleagues traveled near and far to spend time with family and celebrate with traditional Korean food and games. The double edged sword of working at Seoul International School is the communal and sheltered living situation of “the quad,” the rectangular shaped apartment complex where SIS teachers dwell. Double edged because on one side of the blade is the fine gleam of having a group of fellow expatriate, English speaking neighbors to communicate, travel, and work with.

To make this move and then be completely immersed in South Korea with no western buoys to help float would be hard. The language is incredibly challenging and the culture is both beautiful and mysterious. We often don’t know if we are offending, making fools of ourselves, or if we are just as enigmatic to our hosts as they are to us. It is a blessing to have experienced teachers and new friends close by to talk shop, translate a menu, explain why people are laughing at you, and take you on the subway for the first time.

The other edge of the blade cuts an unfortunate swath: it is easy to settle into the comforts of living in South Korea with expatriates. It is very possible to live here for sixty days, six months, or even six years and not make a single Korean friend, learn more than a dozen words or expressions, or never rent a van and drive as far south as possible before plunging into the South East Sea.

Our ‘first day’ in South Korea is what we came here for. After packing the van and saying goodbye to some friends in the quad, we set out with myself behind the wheel and Amber, Andy, and Laura working navigation, logistics, music, and massage therapy. Despite having a well detailed road atlas and street signs with Arabic numbers and phonetic English translations, driving around Korea is wild. The van we rented has a stick shift that feels more like an old racecar video game than an actual, functioning stick shift. The kind of video game you might find in an old pizza joint or bowling alley where you sit in a fake car seat and turn a fake steering wheel and throw a fake stick shift between 4th and 5th gear with the wrist action of the guy playing air hockey next to you. It feels like I don’t even need the clutch, and any uphill needs to be conquered in 2nd gear with the gas pedal pinned.

The scariest part is the first ten minutes. Driving through the concrete jungle outskirts of Seoul. The first time behind the wheel of a vehicle in South Korea, and two solid months since I have done any driving. Three very important people’s butt-checks clenching the soft interior as taxi cabs, buses, and helmetless motorcyclists whiz by the van at phenomenal kilometers. Horizontal traffic lights and loose traffic laws. Lanes intermittently jog to the left and right after major intersections and all those other vehicles buzzing on all sides like drunken bumble bees searching for some new nectar. But everything dials in very quickly, and it soon feels like I am driving in just another major city. New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Montreal, Seoul. It all has that same feel of driving with the perfect balance of aggressive defense. The perfectly mixed Bloody Mary: not to spicy, not to strong, but enough zing to tingle the feet. Soon, my feet are tingling and the van is shifting smoothly and we are out of the city and cruising south, and with my co-pilot and navigators I could drive this van all day. Straight into the South East Sea.

We stop at a rest area for lunch and get more stares than usual now that we are out of the metro area. We find a tourist information center and get a map of Gyeongju. The Old Capitol is absolutely littered with temples, UNESCO cites, and historical landmarks from centuries past. We note a few spots we would like to visit, but it is late and our real focus is on the black circle left by the pleasant Korean women behind the desk at the tourist kiosk. That circle is our campsite and home for our ‘first night in South Korea.’

Our tent is sitting two feet off the musky forest floor on a ten foot by ten foot wooden platform. Laura and Andy are fifteen feet to our left on the adjacent camp platform. It is about 9:30 PM and the Koreans camping around us are awake and boisterous. We are the only westerners at the campsite. Our first friends were some Korean children. Without the stigma of social boundaries and the hurt pride of adult egos stumbling over pronunciations and the dubious distinction between a bow and a handshake, the children of Korea have welcomed us wholeheartedly from Seoul to Gyeongju and all points between. They have no qualms staring, speaking, or showing off for us – they are children, and we have learned that word is universal on planet Earth and their behavior holds little regard for geography.

Shortly after our arrival and setup of camp, a group of about six Korean children edge closer to our tent area. Slowly, they work up the courage to stand within ear shot and speak broken English loud enough for us to hear. One girl in particular acts as the leader giving English lessons to the other kids. Eventually we bridge the gap and strike up a conversation with the leader. We discover she is really the only one with English to communicate, but the other children seem plumb delighted to just watch the show between their friend and our group of foreign campers. Just standing near their friend as she jabbers away in English gives them privilege and a sense of belonging. They are standing by the cool kid. They have all been back to visit repeatedly throughout the night.

Our next friend arrives while Amber is cooking dinner. Rain starts to fall and we scramble to stash away supplies. We are prepared with rain jackets and umbrellas, but not the extensive tarps, canopies, and outdoor rain shelters our fellow campers rolled in with; transforming this place into a small plastic village. Amber is behind the camp stove, stirring the curry and starting to look panicked as the rain falls heavier and our dinner simmers.

Suddenly, a Korean man walks up with a large fold out umbrella. A Coca-Cola umbrella to be exact, heavy-duty, which would look completely natural on top of a street vendor outside of Central Park.

“Tomorrow,” he says, and pushes the umbrella into my hands, his young daughter hiding behind his leg and watching dad save the day. The four of us looked at him with slack jaws for a moment. He smiles warmly and repeats, “tomorrow,” with a slight bow and nod of the head. We thank him in what little Korean we have gained from the good side of the sword, and he smiles and nods again. “Tomorrow.”

We cook under the umbrella and eat s’mores over our smoky fire after the rain dies down enough to not water log the marshmallows. Our “fan club” of young people came back to visit and practice English, and we watch as the campers two sites down place slabs of fresh squid on their grill. The delicious smell of grilled seafood fills the air, and now these same campers are playing sweet guitar and some kind of flute and singing songs in Korean. I have no idea what the song is about, but I like it. Children are everywhere. Talking and running and having sword fights with broken tent polls.

At one point the guitar stops and we call out for more music. The Koreans laugh, drink more Soju, and slowly start the strings vibrating again with another soft tune. Shortly after, the children return with a wind up music box and teach us how to say music in Korean: umak – pronounced uh-mahk. Our new friends never missing a beat.

The Korean version of camping is quite the opposite of the outdoor adventures we have shared over the last seven years. Our backpacking excursions to remote and desolate locations where the only sounds at night are the bugs and owls and gurgle of running rivers rushing us off to sleep is replaced by sizzling barbecues and boisterous laughter. Extension-cords zigzag from the dish washing station and run power to the camping platforms of our neighbors. Spotlights are running at high wattage illuminating the campgrounds, and from above we must look like some weird alien ship that has crash landed in the woods and smells oddly of burnt squid. We call it a night and retreat to our nylon homes for our first night of sleep outside of Seoul. We zip ourselves in and lay down and the campsite is absolutely cranking. The Koreans stay up until long past midnight. Grilling squid and drinking Soju and passing the guitar and some kind of flute around. The music seeps into our tent and blends with the sound of children playing and eventually we drift off to sleep; our heads swimming with thoughts of tomorrow and the playback of today’s trip south. We sleep, but the Koreans keep the place busy. This campsite is alive, and I can’t wait for our ‘second day’ in South Korea.

Korean Sauna Take One – September 27, 2009

We are in the old capitol city of Gyeongju, and the rain is relentless. It held off long enough for our visit to the Seokguram Grotto ( to be relatively dry. A little drizzle starts after we exit the main Buddha monument at the Grotto. A 15 foot stone carving of the Buddha sitting in the lotus position partitioned behind a glass wall guarded by carvings of the Four Heavenly Kings. A variety of other stone statues adorn the interior of the temple, and standing inside of this monument that was erected during the Silla Dynasty of the 8th century is humbling. A sort of mass is happening while we view the Buddha. A monk leads the parishioners, beating time with a wooden spoon striking a metal ornament, and the followers proceed through a random serious of gestures and salutations to the Buddha. All of this is encapsulated in a small wooden structure nestled into a small hillside that overlooks the Sea of Japan, or the East Sea depending on what country you are from. Unfortunately, that sea is hidden behind the low cloud cover and our view is blocked where the clouds meet the foothills that fall off into the horizon.

Our tour of the monument begins with a booth advertising tours in English. We inquire, and shortly after an elderly Korean man exits the booth, puts his shoes on, and starts walking towards the stairs that lead up to the shrine. He stops their and adjusts his microphone headset. A thin contraption with two firm wires that position two small microphones in front of his mouth powered by a chord that runs down to a control box attached to his belt. From his belt, the chord doubles back to a small speaker that I think is somehow attached to his back. The result is a bizarrely amplified voice that seems to be emanating from this gentleman’s back for the four of us who all stand a foot away from him. His broken English and the short delay between his normal voice and the amplified voice echoing from his spine do not deter from the knowledge our guide, Mr. Kim, possesses about the Seokguram Grotto. He speaks for a full ten minutes about the history of the Grotto, and the neighboring Bulguksa Temple, and about the Korean Dynasties that played a role in both historical sites. As he completes his speech and turns the last page in the photograph book that provides a visual backdrop to his tale, he thanks us and points to the stairs where we can walk up to the stone Buddha. He then turns off his sound system, walks back to the both, pops his shoes off and takes up his position waiting for the next ‘English Tour.’ The visit with the Buddha is brief but strong. Making eye contact with a 1300 year old sculpture that towers over you with the serenity of a panda bear is fantastic. No amount of rain can dampen the powerful spirit emanating from such a relic. But the rain tries.

Now we are soaked and our bellies full from lunch at a small Korean restaurant outside the parking lot of Seokguram Grotto. Beef stew and pork cutlet, kimchi and the ubiquitous pickled radishes, and sun dried shrimp still in the shell with head and tails and limbs that Andy and I declare the fishiest things we ever tasted. The cold rain and post lunch grogginess makes our afternoon plans an easy decision: time to explore the Korean saunas.

We find a hotel and spa, The Kolon Hotel (the puns are endless as the van navigates a parking spot), that allows public entry into the sauna for 9,000 won. The rough equivalent of $8.00 gives us access to a range of steam rooms, hot and cold baths, a relaxation room in case a nap is needed, some exercise equipment, and a prepping room complete with gels, sprays, and scents for when we are ready to leave The Kolon smelling fresh. We gladly fork over the one red and four blue bills, and firm up our plans to meet the ladies in three hours back in the lobby. Andy and I head to the right, Laura and Amber to the left.

Andy and I enter the nicest locker room I have ever visited and find some empty lockers. We are skeptical as towards how this experience will unfold. My tattoo pales in comparison to the amount of ink adorning Andy’s arms, legs, chest, and back; and tattoos in Korea are a major faux pas – or so we have been told. It is consensus among the older Korean generation that tattoos are acquired in prison by gang members. There have been times when, walking through a market or in a subway, Andy’s coated arms have caused elderly ladies to clutch their purses a bit tighter. Ironic, because Andy is one of the most genuine and honest people I have met, and one of the most culturally aware and sensitive ex-patriots working at SIS. His unequivocal desire to leave a positive image of westerners in Korea is sometimes thwarted by the artwork pinned on his long swinging limbs. We are also far from the modern beat of Seoul, and if we are going to offend we feel this is place. This old capitol city has a city vibe, but compared to the ultra-modern metropolis of twenty million people we embarked from yesterday, this place is the sticks.

We don’t want to make a scene, but we are wet and chilled to the core and those saunas and hot baths sound amazing. We are also not sure what to do here. We know that the Korean saunas are nude, and that’s fine, but we see no one else in this locker room, and there is some kind of middle room before you walk down the stairs to the actual sauna. Do we disrobe here? Down there? Do we wrap one of the towels they gave us around ourselves before we walk down? What is the protocol here? Unfortunately, there are no signs with naked stick figures to guide the way. As we debate this situation, and continue to discuss what we will do if we walk in there and the patrons flip, a Korean man enters with is son. They quickly disrobe and exit the locker room heading for the Saunas. Andy and I laugh, and follow suit.

The pools range in temperature from a cool 18 degrees Celsius to a boiling 44 degrees Celsius. The two sauna rooms have their own range, one very hot and kind of very hot. We get some stares as we enter, but everything is fine as we take our place on two stools for the ceremonial pre-rinse. A line of removable shower heads stands at attention before a row of plastic stools, and we quickly realize the purpose. We take our seats and join the other newcomers in a pre-rinse before entering the pools. We head straight for the hottest pool to push out the chill that has followed us for most of the day. Outside the rain is pouring and the wind is blowing large ripples through the water hazard on the 17th hole of the Kolon Hotel Golf course that sits far below the large glass windows of the sauna, but we are in bliss as the hot water fills our pores and heats us to the marrow.

Flooded Tent = Thai Style – September 27, 2009

We return from our sauna and the campsite is deserted, literally. The only things left are our two tents. This might have something to do with the fact that it has not stopped raining since noon, and the drive up the mountain to the campsite took us right through the very cloud that is dropping jelly bean size globs of water. The van lurches to a stop and the headlights illuminate the empty platforms. Our two tents look like lost children. They just shouldn’t be here all alone. The premonition in the van is bad, and when we get to the tents the predicitions are realized.

Our tent is not that bad, it has some water under the air mattresses. However, Andy and Laura’s tent now has a swimming section. We can’t break down the tents in this weather. We pile back in the van and head back to the front office of the campground. We manage to explain our situation to the man, and he understands our request for shelter. The only English he can stammer out is, “Thai style.” He repeats this phrase while drawing a roof in the air with his fingers. Thai style sounds good, as long as its dry style. We set up shop for the night in a Thai style cabin, hard wood floors with no beds, but a bathroom and a sink and enough space for the four of us to play cards and have some cocktails and watch Korean television. The rain continues through the night but stops sometime before the sun rises. We return to the campsite to salvage our camping gear and head to the next destination.

We pack up the tents and head for Namhae. We need to get a hotel because the tents have to dry. We spend a night in the hotel and head to the beach the following morning. We have apparently missed beach season because the place is deserted. All the restaurants and beach shops and trinket shacks are bordered for the winter, and it’s only the beginning of October. We have the entire beach to ourselves, and we soak up every thin ray of sun that seeps through the hazy cloud cover. Beautiful pink shells litter the beach, and the water is warm and salty. We swim out to a small float and take in the dramatic landscape. Jutting peaks that drop into the ocean, huge rock formations just off-shore, a nice sandy patch of beach, and we have the entire place to ourselves. We have a picnic lunch of grilled cheese, chips and salsa, and apple slices on a jetty. After a short parlay we decide to push on to the next island.

The Wall – Tongyeong – September 30, 2009

Every long trip has it, and it is best to just prepare for the wall. It usually happens when you have been on a plane or in a car for too long. Stuck in a train station or airport. Spending too many days crossing time zones or not sleeping on uncomfortable beds. Every long trip has a wall that you hit when you feel like things are stacked against you and you question how this wall was erected right before your face without your judgment demanding you detour around the wall. Our wall hit in Tongyeong. We expect a small beach town similar to Namhae were we just spent a semi-beach day beneath hazy cloud cover tenuously holding back the sun. Not a proper beach day, but warm enough to take a swim and with beach season officially over in South Korea, having the whole beach to ourselves was enjoyable. Frisbee, postcards, a picnic on the jetti, and then in the van and off to Tonyeong – the next “beach town.”

But this is no beach town. This is the port city of the south eastern Korean peninsula. Major shipping yards footprint the coast, and a boat building yard usurps a good chunk of the coastline. The bay is littered with enormous sea-faring vessels. One is possibly the biggest floating structure I have seen in person aside from the Intrepid floating in the Hudson. It looks like an enlarged football goal post attached to a barge with a crane on the tip of each post. My only thought is that it is some kind of boat that fixes other boats without having to dock. It does not seem feasible that it can float. But it does, and it dwarfs the other floating boats that scurry along the salty mix.

We are told there is camping on the public beach. A picture on the map shows a beautiful beach with nice sand and crystal clear water, and the blurb declares this beach a haven for summer beach combers with shallow waters safe enough for the kids! What we find is 40 meters of rough sand surrounded by a small break wall that drops into some precarious ocean splashing into the concrete. The beach runs adjacent to a jogging/bike trail, and the entire setting is just around the corner from a massive hotel. It is the equivalent of camping next to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, or under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. We laugh and make endless jokes about waking up with a bunch of drunken fisherman gutting their days catch next to our tent. It is late and our daylight is dwindling and we have few options. Andy and I try the massive hotel, but the rate is way out of our budget. Back in the van, and off we go to Geoje. We find a hotel just before dark and feast on freshly barbecued beef at the Kalbi restaurant next door and wash it down with Soju and beer. After dinner, we soak our defeated day of driving through Tongyeong at the sauna.

Korean Sauna Take Two – Geoje – September 30, 2009

We are pros at this. We confidently enter our second Korean sauna on the island of Geoje after a long day of driving and one of the most interesting camp sites we have ever seen (see story above), and smoothly receive the electronic key attached to the rubber ankle band from the clerk behind the desk. Without hesitation we enter the locker room and disrobe and head to the sauna area. This facility has a much larger lounge area, and we stop to watch one inning of the Doosan Bears playing the Lotte Giants in what we believe is a playoff game. The game was on in the Kalbi restaurant we visited before coming here, and it is clear from the fans in the restaurant and the fans in the sauna that we are now in Giants territory – a long way from Olympic Park and the Bears faithful.

Despite what we have been told, we actually meet several Koreans at this sauna that have tattoos, and the common bond creates discussion in various forms of broken English and our horribly inept Korean. This sauna is much larger than the previous one, and has a larger variety of water temperatures and sauna rooms. One sauna in the corner of the room emanates a red glow, and it looks as if the room is on fire. The digital clock above the door says 77 degrees Celsius. I’m not sure if that is accurate because that converts to roughly 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Intrigued, I take a cold rinse and enter what I nickname “the viper room.” It is the hottest place I have ever been. The detoxifying and cathartic sweat streams from my body and any movement pushes blasts of hot air over my skin. I take ten, long breaths and slowly exhale each one into the thick atmosphere of “the viper room.” When I exit I head straight for cold. A small enclosed shower that dumps 100 gallons of freezing cold water at the push of a button. I can feel my capillaries flaring and the relief is instantaneous.

Amber is relaxing in the ladies sauna, and her experience with the locals is even more gregarious than Andy and I talking baseball and body art. Amber befriends a Korean woman who is thrilled to have some people with whom to practice her English. Before the women leaves, she finds Amber sitting in one of the sauna rooms and enters with a traditional Korean beverage for Amber. Amber does not know what the beverage is, but in her own words, “it was some kind of tea with an amazing aftertaste that was like heaven every time I drank it.” A cool and delicious drink, and just as comforting in the hot sauna as an umbrella at a campsite during a cold rain.

The Ride Home – October 1, 2009

After camping for a night in Geoje, at what we declare to be the best campsite of the trip, we pack up the van and head back to Seoul. The van cruises smoothly past the little cities and endless foothills that embody this country. We never saw flat land the entire trip. For every skyscraper and apartment high-rise in South Korea, there are two peaks speckled with oaks and pines. The mountain biking in this country is great, and driving to the tip of the peninsula and back to Seoul reveals the possibilities. I must do this trip again with the bike and better weather. The instant nostalgia that accompanies every road trip seeps through the van, and the gang is already reminiscing about our travels. Six days on the road, and we wear our new experiences like a badge. Another baby step in the land of morning calm.

The north bound lane we are driving in is moving fluidly, and we watch the south bound lane start to stutter with the congestion of Chuseok traffic. Far worse than any holiday traffic we experience in the states, Chuseok traffic is notorious in South Korea. The stuff of legend. It is easy for the veteran western staff member at Seoul International School to exaggerate and euphemize details to impress the rookies at Seoul International School, but even the Korean staff at SIS speak of Chuseok traffic as a beast with no predictable pattern. The most infamous tale of Chuseok traffic actually stems from a trip very similar to the one we just took. Except as those unfortunate campers neared Seoul they were greeted with a barrage of brake lights and bumpers, and after sitting in traffic for several hours without moving an inch, they unpacked the van and set up a tent next to the highway. They slept for a few hours, and got back in the van in the same exact spot.

We, on the other hand, are rolling along to the smooth sound of Billy Joel. I’m not sure how he ended up on the crackly van speakers, but a few miles ago it was mentioned that Andy only likes heavy music, and he immediately chimed in with his appreciation for Mr. Joel. He even went so far as to say one of his favorite songs is Downeaster Alexa. Amber cues it up and we all sing along, and then let Billy Joel continue to fill the airwaves as we cruises under the soft Korean sky. We are approaching the final toll booth without a lick of traffic-a tough feat at any time in this city of 20 million people and what feels like 40 million cars. Maybe good timing. Maybe coincidence. Maybe a little serendipity. It’s hard to say, but as we cross the city line we are a dozen songs deep into a Billy Joel shuffle and the old crooner is letting the pipes rip. Really letting it out as he hits the chorus of one of his classic tunes. And we are all bellowing along with him. And the van is filled with the repetitive chorus that has taken on a new meaning for the four of us:

It’s all about soul!

Monday, August 10, 2009

“You Are the Healthiest Person Here – Asan Medical Center August 5, 2009”

The first observation is that this hospital does not smell like a hospital. This massive complex feels more like an airport. Elevators and large foyers greet patients when they enter the automatic sliding doors. Natural light spills through the expansive sky lights in the roof, and an art gallery adjacent to the main hall draws the attention of a passerby.

Koreans whiz by me, left and right. Some in street clothes with masks over their face (a “Korean thought” surges through me – “this place is full of evil germs and I must protect myself”). Some in three piece suits with nice, shiny shoes. Interns? Business men? Lawyers? Are the health care system and the legal system as intertwined as they are in America? I am not sure if our litigious American customs exist in South Korea. Some are patients in hospital gowns. Some independent. Some connected to an IV crutch of dripping liquid. All make quick eye contact, and then dart their glance aside.

A line of ATMs gets worked busily as people line up to extract the colorful won that will no doubt pay for their services here. It occurs to me I have no idea how the health care system in this country works. As a teacher for the Seoul International School, I am well cared for with a favorable international health plan, but my thoughts drift to the native Korean. What is there health care system like, and how does it differ from ours? We enter the International Clinic room of the hospital, and my thought is quickly scattered. Brief introductions with the nursing staff, and we are off for the first part of our International Work Visa physical: blood and urine.

Having blood drawn here is a bizarre exercise only to be paralleled with going to the DMV. Patients sit in a small room and receive a print-out upon entry. The print out has the usual information: name, date, time of entry, and then a large number smack in the middle of the paper. At the front of the room is a line of 8 kiosks, with a pleasant Korean woman behind each podium. A digital sign hangs above each woman’s head displaying a single letter followed by 4 numbers-all in English. Patients sit with their ticket firmly grasped, eyes narrowed on the alphanumeric read out slowly changing on the digital screens.

My number appears just a few moments after I have found a seat. A seat that was briefly occupied by a native countryman. Upon our entrance, our seven person entrance, we groggily scrap to find seats through the early morning fog still obscuring our thoughts. The native countryman sits on the end row of a four person bench. When I move into the row, he spots the three people behind me and quickly vacates his post, smiling and gesturing to us to occupy the four seats. We all thank him, and try to convey that he does not have to move for us – we can scatter ourselves throughout the room. But he will not sit back down; he moves across the aisle to another row and sits next to another patient waiting for the inevitable pinch of the needle. We are slightly embarrassed and slightly happy to be all sitting together. We are socially conscious teachers here to learn about the culture, teach internationally, and experience this new terrain – but we also don’t want to disrupt the scene in the process. I was told, before my departure, that Koreans are very hospitable and eager to please foreigners, and I think this may be the first example of this hospitality. This notion is further confirmed a few days later when Amber and I go shopping at the grocery store.

We stare at a wall of soy sauce, hundreds of bottles with dozens of different labels – all in Korean. We are confident that it is soy sauce, but why is there so much? And so many different kinds? I try to ask an employee if it is, in fact, soy sauce, and if they have a smaller bottle as almost every plastic bottle filled with the black liquid stands a liter or more tall. The woman does not understand me, and hands me something off a different shelf – I think it is salt.

Suddenly, another patron standing behind me jets off from the aisle. She actually runs out of the aisle. Amber and I exchange a quick glance – have we broken some cultural taboo by asking for soy sauce? She returns quicker then she departed, dragging her teenage daughter behind. She quickly rifles something in Korean to the young girl, and then smiles at us. The girl rolls her eyes and responds in Korean. Her mom repeats the command and gestures at us again. The girl looks up at Amber and me through rimless glasses, and what pops out of her mouth is astonishing.

“What are you looking for?” she asks, in perfect English. Not just in perfect English, but with an American accent. I am suddenly not in Seoul; I am in a Korean district of San Francisco. This girl’s mother does not speak English, but this girl speaks flawless English with the inflection of a Bay Area resident. Weird. Amber and I stumble over our words at this new revelation.

“Ah, soy sauce. Yes, we are looking for soy sauce,” I say.

The Korean girl scans the shelves, “What do you want it for?”
Amber and I exchange another befuddled look. How do I respond to this without insulting this child whose mother is proudly watching the exchange?

“For rice, or putting on food. How about this one?” Amber says, pulling a bottle off the shelf. Any bottle, something to try and make sense of this. The girl looks at the bottle and shakes her head.

“No,” she says “that soy sauce is for soup.” Amber and I make the connection, and after a quick glance between each other, we look up and down soy sauce aisle and realize each one of these mysteriously labeled containers is soy sauce, but soy sauce for a purpose. Soup soy sauce, beef soy sauce, pork soy sauce, breakfast soy sauce, lunch soy sauce, dinner soy sauce, and soy sauce for everyday of the week (and two for Sunday). The girl scans the aisle again, and pulls another bottle, “This one will work.” We thank her and her mother graciously, and we bow politely to the mother. Mom smiles and is beaming as she exits the aisle with daughter in tow.

B5224 pops up on one of the digital screens. I stand up and walk to the front of the room and sit below my corresponding number. A soft spoken Korean woman greets me in Korean, “Annyong haseyo.” I timidly respond in kind. She deftly wraps my arm in a rubber surgical hose, slaps my arm, apologizes, and then gently taps my strained vein with the sharp syringe. She draws 4 vials of blood with rapid fluidity, unwraps my arm, and covers the pinhole with an alcohol wipe. Above me, the digital read out cycles to the next number. This is by far the most efficient, gentle, and vampire-like blood drawing procedure I have encountered.

The Korean women hands me a cup to pee in as I stand up, and I enter the bathroom. I suppose there is little concern for urine swapping or tainted tests, because I enter the bathroom with 4 other men and we all dutifully fill the cups at western style urinals. We place our cups into a window at the far end of the bathroom. I exit the bathroom and I am whisked upstairs for further tests. We begin to follow our Korean liaison from the hospital, and I eye the back of her hospital scrubs and see a magical word: volunteer. I notice many more hospital volunteers throughout our visit.

We are once again buzzing through large foyers and hallways. Koreans on my left and right. My feet shuffle beneath me. A sting in my arm reminds of me where I am, but I otherwise feel like I am in an airport or a large mall and we just haven’t reached the shops yet. I once again notice the lack of hospital smell. That stale medicinal smell that always permeates a visit to the land of the sick and healing is thoroughly absent here. It literally smells like nothing, kind of how water tastes like nothing.

I arrive upstairs and remove my shirt and put on a hospital gown for my chest X-ray. Despite the other visitors congregating in the waiting area, we are quickly brought in to the X-ray room one at a time. The technician giggles as she tries to pronounce our names, and directs me to hug the large square block at the front of the room. My name is recorded as my first and middle name, and they stammer out both names as one long syllable. When the technician speaks, she pauses before the last word of every sentence, and then says it a little louder, and with a tone of finality that she has completed a proper English sentence.
“Rogerphillip, please stand…HERE.”


“Rogerphillip, please put arms around…BLOCK.”


“Rogerphillip, please take deep breath and…HOLD.”

“Huuuuuuu….” I breathe deep and…HOLD.

The X-ray machine beeps behind me and the technician I can’t see calls again.
“Rogerphillip, please…RELEASE.”

“Wheeeeeeewwwwww.” I release my breath.

“Rogerphillip, please…RELEASE.”

I look at the technician with a blank stare. She is gesturing to the door, “Rogerphillip, please…RELEASE.” I release myself from the room and thank the technician, “Kamsahamnida.”

I change out of my hospital gown and I am back on the escalator downstairs to the International Clinic. We enter and take seats in the small waiting room. Our group occupies about half the empty seats, and a large, African American family occupies the other half. The parents are looking at each other through glazed eyes. Some of their children are playing games, and some are slouched over, asleep on the couch. They have the look of a family that has been waiting for hours in the International Clinic of Asan Medical center. That same look that is seen in airports around the world from the travelers whose flights have been cancelled or luggage lost.

The teachers of Seoul International School are quickly weighed and measured, and I struggle to convert the metric system to standard when I see the digital read out of my height and weight. I am called into the doctor’s office, and I greet the petite Korean doctor with the formal greeting I have acquired over the past few days.

“Annyong haseyo!” I proudly exclaim, entering the office.

“Hello,” she responds in perfect English, similar to the young girl in the grocery store. Not just perfect English, English with an American accent. I quickly realize this doctor has probably gone to school in America, and an expression of amusement rolls across her face in response to my confused countenance. After pointing and grunting my way through the majority of my Korean encounters over the past few days, her English and her American accent catches me off guard, and I can tell it is part of her routine. Maybe a fun way to break up the day. She knows my jet lag hasn’t cleared yet. My brain is still trying to function on Pacific Standard Time, and my quickness has been dulled by our hectic schedule, right off the plane, at Seoul International School. She flashes a clever smile, and we begin the routine.

Eyes, ears, throat, neck, reflexes, blood pressure, heart rate, and a check of the vital organs. We make small talk about my move to South Korea, and teaching at SIS. She tells me I am in great health and to stay active. In fact, she tells me I am the healthiest person she has examined so far, and she has examined almost 25 new staff members. I feel elated. Some good news in this chaos of a new, foreign city. I give her a formal thank you, “Kamsahamnida.” She responds in her native tongue, “Chon maneyo.” And off I go, back onto the bus and the afternoon meetings at SIS. Through the humming traffic and sea of apartments and beautiful green space that have come to symbolize my introduction to this amazing country. I have little time to talk with my colleagues as I bury myself back in to Still Life with Rice, by Helie Lee. The summer reading book for my incoming ninth graders, and an excellent window to the traditions of Korean life.

That evening I feel boastful and brag to Amber about my top score at the health examination.

“The doctor told me I was the healthiest person she examined,” I say proudly, chewing some American style Mac and Cheese Amber concocted from our visit to COSTCO.

“Oh yeah?” Amber responds, “She told me the same thing. In fact, I talked to people on the bus ride home, and she said that to everyone.” We crack up. My ego quickly deflates. I pop a spoonful of penne pasta soaking in pepper-jack cheese into my mouth, and the warm feeling is all over me. This new country; where people run to help translate a soy sauce conundrum, play musical chairs to accommodate a confused group of hospital patients, and drop sly niceties to make you feel a sense of happiness after a long day of pokes and prods; is starting to feel as warm and welcoming as the comfort food Amber put together for our evening meal.

“Baby Steps in the Land of Morning Calm – COSTCO August 2, 2009”

Our first big shopping experience in Seoul today: COSTCO. The word alone usually sends a chill up my spine and a flutter through my heart. Ventricles and passage ways of blood constrict at the mere thought of walking through the Herculean doors and into the wastelands of plastic and products and pickles that come in a jar bigger than a pony keg. But, oddly, being in Seoul and feeling like a stranger in a strange land, the thought of walking into the confines of COSTCO is eerily comfortable. Like we would walk in and suddenly I would run into someone I know from home and we would talk about the weather and sports and joke about the enormous jar of pickles in my cart (I’m having a BBQ this weekend-you should come! No, seriously, bring your new girlfriend…her friends? Sure, why not-it’s a party!). And for a few short seconds everything would feel completely normal again and I would be transported into a familiarity that has been leagues out of my existence for the last few days. Only a few days, although with the jet lag and humidity, it feels like a few weeks.

Our journey begins with the acquiring of a Costco membership. Something I swore would never happen, I’ll just buddy up or continue to mooch off a family member’s membership. But my own membership? Never! Why would I ever do that? Those ideals quickly made way for: here’s my passport, where do I sign. And after a quick photo, a signature, and 35,000 won for a lifetime of double pack cereal and 3 pound bags of potatoes chips, we are allowed entry into the holy grail of conspicuous consumption. The fact that this COSTCO has the same exact lay out as every other COSTCO I have ever visited in the US is ineffably creepy, but also downright soothing. Knowing where to turn for 96 granola bars for $12.99 is like slipping on an old pair of tennis shoes and strolling around the corner to an old friend’s house to watch movies. You know exactly what you are going to get, and when it’s over you want to do it all over again.

We did, for the record, have a list of things we were supposed to purchase. What happened to that list once we got rolling down the spacious alleyways COSTCO euphemizes as aisles is beyond me. We found only a few things on our list on the first level – the home goods section of this multitier COSTCO, but once we descend to the lower level, the food level, look out baby. We fill an entire shopping cart, and the underneath carriage – overflowing mind you, and only 3 things were actually on the list of: “Stuff to get at Costco (The Costco in Seoul).” But how can you resist? An American in Seoul who has had fire-ass for the last three days sustaining on a Korean diet that is delicious and fascinating, but also dripping oil and swimming in Chili paste every time, now cruising the aisles of taste bud nostalgia with a pocket full of won and an empty apartment to stock. Chunky’s New England Clam Chowder, Pepperidge Farm Cookies, Philadelphia Cream Cheese (the real stuff), Guinness, Absolute Vodka, string cheese, parmesan cheese, pepper jack cheese, peanut butter, Penne pasta, spaghetti sauce, granola bars, butter (REAL BUTTER!), coffee (REAL COFFEE!), jam, Bumble Bee tuna – nothing too extravagant (it is COSTCO after all), but all the comfort foods you remember from your child hood days out east at your Aunt’s house on the Long Island Sound. A cream cheese bagel in the morning, peanut butter and jelly in the afternoon, and a stiff Vodka and Clam Chowder with the family around the campfire in the evening. Or at least, that’s how memories are seeping through the heavy fog of jet lag that is still mushing my brain and making me consider buying a year supply carpet cleaner when we have hard wood floors. With the cart careening through the store, moving rather sluggish from all the extra goodies, it is time for checkout.

The bus that dropped us off with the rest of the new ex-patriot employees of Seoul International School will be picking us up promptly at 11:30, and Amber and I realize our time is short. It is time to divide and conquer. I am going to proceed through the checkout of COSTCO on my own, while Amber goes across the street to an E-Mart (very similar to a Wal-Mart or Target), and try to find us a fan, clock radio, speakers, and a few other assorted electronic home goods that have a limited selection here in COSTCO. We agree to meet at E-marts’ checkout at 11:15 if all else fails. We give each other a careful, surreptitious look that conveys one simple message with no words: good luck! And we part ways to more effectively navigate this unique shopping experience.

Checkout is surprisingly smooth, with the nice young clerk behind the counter and me communicating through a series of points, grunts, and broken syllables. The shocking total of 722,647 won is even more of a gut slug by the sheer weight of such a number popping up on the check out scanner. You know in your head that this number does not carry the same connotation as 722,647 dollars, but you are still hesitant to fork over such an outrageous quantity of money in any situation. But you do, and happily, because this wonderful young man has just scanned through a half year’s supply of all your favorite American treats, plus enough toilet paper to give every person in the greater Seoul area one good wipe, one solid front to back. This courteous scan gun jockey then politely expresses, in not too broken English, that since you have so much stuff (you typical American you!) that you cannot take the escalator-thing up stairs, no no good sir, you must take the elevator. Not a problem! I love elevators, and this will be first time on a Korean one!

There is a line for the elevator and I am at the back. Two well dressed Korean women perform the COSTCO ritual of checking our receipts as we leave, too make sure, as the sign said at checkout: “that we have not underpaid or overpaid for any of our goods.” They reach me and give my receipt a good long look over, and scan the cart several times with their eyes. The slim piece of paper nearly reaches the floor from the petite woman’s hands, and she has a serious expression as she slowly pulls it through her hands a THIRD TIME before giving it a slash with her red crayon. I have passed! I can enter the elevator! I have not over paid or under paid for any of my products!

Now, entering the elevator at Costco Korea is a fairly simple process. Depending on what floor of the parking garage located above the store you parked on determines which elevator you ride on, and with whom. It is a constant game of elevator Tetris where the two Korean receipt checkers are trying to fit as many pieces into each square elevator, all going to roughly the same place. Efficiency at its finest. Yes, a fairly simple process indeed – that is, of course, if you can speak Korean.
The ladies begin to question me about which elevator I am going to take, and I try to stammer out my response that I need only to go back to floor 1, the floor I first entered on. They appear royally confused and almost insulted by this, and further their interrogation by flashing a series of non-sequential numbers in front of me with their fingers, apparently asking me to choose one. Unfortunately, a single index finger indicating floor one was never an option, so I hold up my index finger to indicate my destination. At this time, they kind of laugh at me?
To the rescue comes the woman next to me who is been watching this parlay, and now wants to help a fellow human with her limited English skills.

“They want know which floor you come in on,” she says, smiling politely.

“I came in on the first floor,” I say.

Now she kind of giggles. “No, no – which floor you enter on? Where you first come in?”

“Really though, I walked in on the first floor.”

The women conference for a moment in Korean, and decide my fate for me since I seem to not understand what is happening. With unanimity they decide I actually need to go to floor number 2. And who am I to argue? It seems somewhat logical, if this is basement area is not called a basement and is actually considered floor number 1, then I did come in on floor number 2. I smile and thank them, “Kamsahamnida!” They repeat my thanks, and a few moments later I am directed to my elevator. One more piece of the Tetris puzzle dropped into place.

I am the first person on the elevator, and so I squeeze into the back right corner of the metal box. Four more patrons, plus their shopping carts (all substantially less full then mine) enter the elevator. I notice the elevator buttons are numbered in English, as is almost everything here. It is odd, there is some English around the city (and more in the subways and buses), but for the most part everything is written in Korean – except the numbers. Even at restaurants, prices are conveyed in won, but advertised in English. I now see the B for the floor we are on, so we are in the “basement,” and then the numbers 1-5 representing 5 floors above the basement. 5 floors? Did I miss a couple of levels in this shopping experience? I also see a red arrow indicating floor 1, the floor I entered on, as the main merchandise floor. The woman who helped translate is also on my elevator, and she gives me a confirming nod as she presses floor 2. Other patrons press floors 4 and 5 respectively. I return the nod and smile to my translator, but I am totally confused. What am I missing? I am still living through the cloudy bubble of a 13 hour plane flight and a lost day somewhere above the Pacific Ocean. We reach floor 2 and the doors open and the women gestures to me that this is my floor, I look out of the elevator and see the first level of the enormous parking garage that sits above the shopping area of COSTCO (a parking garage that encompassed floors 2-5), and suddenly it all hits me like the 80 pound bags of charcoal on aisle 8. Floors 2-5 are the parking garage, but I did not park.

“No,” I tell the women-a little flushed “this is not my floor.”

“Where did you park?”

“I didn’t park, I got dropped off.”


We now smile mutually, realizing all the confusion and mistranslation in the basement-I really did come in on floor 1, but they were trying to ask me where I was parked. We connect with that ancient and most sacred human connection: laughter. All the layers of misunderstanding are instantly peeled away and we are not Korean or American or Man or Woman, we are two people sharing a laugh over a simple misunderstanding.

“It’s okay,” I say, “I will just ride the elevator to the top and catch floor 1 on the way back down.” Before I can even get the words out she is nodding and gesturing with her hand up to the top, and then back down to floor 1. We bow as the door is closing, and I begin to ride the elevator to the top with the rest of the shoppers who are eyeing me in a funny way after my bizarre communication with the women who departed on floor 2. As we approach the top I begin to think about the difficulties, and all the stories, I will encounter during these next two years in Korea. I crack a smile and laugh inside and the excitement of all this newness engulfs me and I realize I did not only come here to teach, I have come to be a stranger in a strange land-an outsider completely absent of my comfort zones, experiencing new things with people from all over this planet. I feel relief that when we reach floor 5 everyone will depart and I will be alone for a few brief moments while I descend to floor 1 and exit this elevator-eager to convey my first Korean language mishap to my fellow English speaking colleagues on the bus ride home. Yes, I have survived my first major Korean miscommunication-what a big step on this long journey.

But this is a parking garage, and the obvious function of this elevator does not hit me until the doors open on level 5 and the sea of patrons who have parked their cars and are awaiting COSTCO’s wholesale delights are pushing each other into the metal box. Everyone with shopping carts departs the elevator except me, new (shopping cart-less) consumers enter the box, and I have lost my translator, and now the real miscommunication begins.

The Korean patrons of COSTCO are giving me the strangest looks. Here I sit on the elevator, on the top floor of the parking garage, with a carriage overflowing with stuff, and I am heading back down. Their looks convey messages that do not need a language to be expressed. How did you get here? Why have you not gotten off? What are you doing? I am the only person with a cart, and as the elevator fills – the looks become more and more perplexed. I press the button for floor 1 – guaranteeing that I will not miss my stop a second time. The elevator squeaks and crunches, we descend, but we stop at floor 4. More people get on. Squeak, crunch, descend, and a stop at floor 3. More people get on. I realize my shopping cart is occupying a space big enough for at least 6 people, and possible as many as 15 given the squeeze factor the Koreans are using to max out this elevator. I am literally on my tip-toes, pressed against the wall, and the person in front of me is pressed up against me. Not near me, not close to me, not very close to me – pressed up against me like we are two teenagers at the High School Prom. Thankfully, we are not facing each other. Here we are, one big happy elevator family, dropping to level 2 of the parking garage.

Even the eager patrons of level 2 realize there is no more room on this boxed pony, and they give unsatisfied grunts as the doors close and we (the lucky ones pressed into this elevator) move towards the first floor of merchandise. At any other time, I feel confident I would have recognized the normalness of the situation, and would not have proceeded as I decided to on this day. The sleepless nights before our departure finishing last minute business and brimming with anticipation. The almost immediate commencement of meetings and work at Seoul International School. The waking up at 4 AM every morning since our arrival with confused minds and heavy eyes. The still thick blanket of jet lag wearing on me like a heavy sweeter in the middle of July. Everything converged and my thinking became distorted.

I start to panic. I am in the back of this elevator. Everyone in front of me will need to get off and get back on just for me to exit this box. I eye my watch. I am running short on time. I need to meet Amber at 11:15. I have all the money. I need to meet her so we can pay for stuff at E-Mart. I do not speak enough Korean to convey all of this. I decide to take pre-emptive measures. I need to start making moves. It is hot in here. It is crowded in here. It reeks like garlic in here. I eye my watch. It is hot in here. I start to panic. I must do something. We are quickly approaching the first floor. In a second the doors will open, and I need to get off this thing. If I end up back down in the basement, those receipt checkers are really going to have a good laugh, and the people waiting for the elevator will be even more confused than the people were at the top of parking garage. I am in the back of this elevator. I take action. It is crowded in here. Hot. Garlic.

“I need to get off here,” I say more loudly than I intend, gesticulating wildly with my hands. Trying to convey in some way with the movement of limbs that this is my floor. I repeat myself a few times. Heads turn, eyes light up. What is this man saying? Why is he waving his arms in the air? I continue this comical song and dance until the elevator bings and the doors glide open on floor 1. Everyone in the elevator, at this point, is looking at me, but the moment that first whiff of COSTCO air seeps through the opening doors, everyone, EVERYONE, is off to the races. The elevator empties faster than the free food samples at COSTCO disappear, and I am left completely alone on the elevator looking out at floor 1. My destination, and, obviously, the destination of everyone on the elevator because this is where the shopping begins. This is where the oversize carts live. This is where the coupon book lives that you grab on your way in for the 10% discount on those 80 pound bags of charcoal.

Before I exit the elevator I pause for a moment. This was not a big step, as I foolishly thought approaching floor 5. These are a series of baby steps. The first two happened to come in quick succession, but some will be spaced further apart. This is a two year hike through new terrain. Peaks and valleys. Ebbs and flows. Shopping at COSTCO is just barely the beginning. This move is the epitome of adventure, and before these doors close on me, I must get off this elevator and see what else is out there – find some more miscommunications in the land of morning calm.