Monday, December 6, 2010

"Behind the Eight Ball" and Other Synonyms for Unlucky

"I love you," said the Korean woman solemnly, but while swaying slightly, as she tipped her green glass bottle of soju above an empty plastic bowl. When presented with the offering, I smiled, bowed, and attempted to drink the soju quickly enough to preserve what few of my tastebuds remained after a year in Korea of consuming red-chili-based spices and alcohol strong enough to remove varnish. Soju is certainly not my favourite beverage of choice, but I take pretty much any food or drink that's offered to me, which in the past has included kimchi, gimbap, tteok, odeng, candy, hot chestnuts, a raw chestnut with a live worm in it, and probably other stuff I can't remember. I don't always like what I'm given, but I am always appreciative of the kindness that prompted the gift.

The woman filled the bowl with more soju and handed it next to Josh.

"I love you," Josh told her, dutifully echoing her proclamation. Alice silently gulped down the painfully raw alcohol when her turn came and made a face. None of us was quite certain about the social protocol for such a situation.

(lanterns floating on the Namgang River)

We were at Jinju, at the Lantern Festival, which was packed with Korean revelers. Our tiny group consisted of three Americans living in various areas of the country (me = Seoul, Alice = Busan, Josh = country village nearish Gwangju) and after we had assembled in Jinju we went to an outdoor booth to get food. Foreigners apparently being a somewhat unique phenomenon in Jinju, our table had a rotating variety of Koreans pull up a chair and join us briefly to speak the few mutual words we could share (simple English, simple Korean), offer some of their food and drink, or -- for at least one man -- just to stare in a not unfriendly manner.

Josh and I had arrived in Jinju, located at the southern tip of South Korea, at roughly the same time, and had decided beforehand to wait for each other in the bus terminal. This predestined meet-up had been -- I pause a moment in writing this to find the appropriate word in the online thesaurus -- calamitous, cursed, dire, disastrous, hapless, ill-fated, ill-starred, inauspicious, and unsuccessful. In short, we could not find each other when we first arrived.

I jumped off the bus and looked around the station. It was small. Tiny. Looking around both the outside and inside of station, I knew that Josh was not there. I still did not have a working phone, but I found a payphone booth just outside the station. "Where are you?" I asked Josh. "I'm just outside the bus station." "I'm standing just outside the bus station, too." Small pause. "Does Jinju have two bus stations?"

It did, and we had ended up at opposite ends of town.

I quickly tried to think of a way we could meet. "There are festival ladies in front of the bus station here. They can't speak English, but they have maps of the town."

"Yeah, they're at my station, too," Josh replied.

"Great," I said. "Get the map with the photo of bibimbap on the cover. That's the map I have. We'll just have to open it and figure out a new meeting place."

I opened my map to study the locations listed therein. I tilted my head. I squinted my eyes. I crinkled my nose. No, none of those thing better enabled me to read Hangul. But wait! There were numbers by many of the mysterious places listed. We just needed to settle on a number.

"What about site 156?" I asked. "It's near the festival and not too far from my bus stop. I still don't see your bus stop on the map. Or maybe site 166 since that one looks big?"

"How will we know what the site actually is?" Josh asked.

"Well, we'll have to ask people and figure it out on the way." I said, talking quickly since the payphone was beginning to make gurgling noises and I was running out of change to feed it. "Site 156 sounds good to me."

"Ok," Josh replied. "I'll meet you at site 166."

"See you soon," I replied, an optimistic lie.

Reading over the dialogue, it's obvious what went wrong. At the time, however, we both marched away from our respective bus stops in complete faith that we would soon meet.

For the first order of business, we both needed to locate our current positions on the map. (I did this by going up to some Korean women and asking "yogeyo [here]?" and pointing to different probable locations on my map. Josh later reported that he asked some Korean women, "Where am I? Where am I?," to which they justifiably looked confused.) Although I managed to discover my general location on the map, I still wasn't sure which direction I was facing, so I approached a college-aged man (college-age = most likely to speak English) who was waiting in line to buy tickets and asked him for directions. He promptly left the line and walked me most of the way to the site. "Um, don't you need to buy your bus ticket?" I asked. "Yes," he said and continued to walk with me. That's the thing about Korea. When people here show kindness to strangers, they are so kind. Shortly before reaching the site, it began raining, so my new friend popped me into a taxi and then returned to the bus station.

I got to site 156 and found it to be a seafood restaurant. The rain, which had started out as a glimmering drizzle, had at this point reached a build-your-ark-now level of heaviness. I did not want to eat in the restaurant since I knew Josh would be there soon, but at the same time, I wasn't a huge fan of standing in a deluge. I ducked under the awnings at the front of the restaurant, hoping to take shelter unnoticed there, but the restaurant owners saw me and waved me in. Even though I wasn't a customer, they were delighted to see me.

I was settled on a little wooden bench and someone handed me a steaming cup of hazlenut coffee. A small crowd perched around me. The women took multiple photos of me and repeatedly told me I was pretty. So much attention might lead to vanity, except that by pretty they really just mean "different." Still, it made me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside (though maybe that was just the coffee) and I basked in their praise. A woman rolled open the lattice-work doors to a private room and beckoned one of the customers dining there. He was one of their regular customers and the only one who had visited the U.S.! So he gamely left his meal and chatted with me, acting also as an interpreter for the curious crowd.

I was asked my name, country of origin, age, job, marital status (good news: the only English-speaking Korean in Jinju is also single!), and blood type. After questioning why I was there and who I was waiting for, the crowd then became very concerned with helping me locate my friend. Someone handed me a phone and I used it to call Josh, after which two of the men posted themselves by the door. When Josh finally did arrive, they called out to him by name.

(This is not Josh. This is just a gratuitous lantern photo.)

After finally finding each other, Josh and I easily found the festival, squelched our way through muddy paths lined with food stalls and cartoon sock vendors, and took photos of the hundred or so lanterns lit upon the river. Alice found us in a makeshift teashop along the river, where we were sipping jujube tea and waiting for Josh to dry out. Later that night, we ate and drank in the good company mentioned at the beginning of this story.

(This is Josh. And tea.)

Everything went smoothly until it was time for us to sleep. Every place was full, even the seediest love hotels. After wandering the dark backstreets for an hour or so, we gave up on finding proper bedding and crashed on a jimjilbang (bath house) floor. Alice and I had a restless night’s sleep, due to the fact that we were sleeping head to toe with about a kerbillion Koreans in the jimjilbang’s special heated pine room. (The pine effectively blocked all nasal passages.) Josh also had a restless night’s sleep, due to a rather cuddly man lying next to him and Josh’s inclination to not be cuddled by a strange man. (They hadn’t even exchanged business cards beforehand!) In the morning when we woke, we saw that every inch of floor space in the jimjilbang was full of Jinju lantern revelers; even the stairwell and elevator hummed faintly with the snore of heavy sleep.

I feel like there should be some sort of moral to this story, but there isn’t really, except . . . solid travel plans make for a comfortable experience but a dull story; you, too, should travel haphazardly in a land where you can barely communicate. And as a vintage tribute to the writer I used to be, this is the way I signed off my papers in 2nd grade:

The Very, Very, Very, Very, Very, Very End.


  1. I love getting lost in strange places. When I was 16 I was in Italy with a friend (on a class trip) and we got horribly, horribly lost in Venice. We managed to get back to our boat to the mainland literally as it was about to pull away from the dock. I don't *think* they really would have left without us...

  2. There's few nicer places for losing yourself than Venice, and it's almost inevitable when you're on your own. I carried two maps of Venice when I was there and still ended up lost every day in that city. Most of my trip there consisted of eating gelato and wandering around in circles -- and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

  3. What a travel day! Like you, I find those mishaps to make travel all the more interesting. The kindness of a stranger can also be more apparent than when everything goes as planned.

  4. Thanks for reading, Suzy! So true that kind people often come out of the woodwork to help when things to wrong.