Monday, January 17, 2011

New Clothes, New ER, New Embarrassing Experiences (4 December)

Becoming Properly Acquainted With Catfish

Catfish and I meet at the Gunsan Express Bus Terminal at 8:40 this morning.  We’ve decided that the 9am bus is a good start to the day and I think we’re both a little apprehensive about what the day may hold.  Boarding the bus, we’re seated right at the back where the cool kids usually sit in high school.  Our conversation is somewhat hesitant and we both try to figure out the other person.  Our Kiwi-mom had mentioned that we have music in common so this seems like a safe enough topic before long. 

Surprisingly, conversation gets easier and we’re at the rest-stop before we know it where Catfish introduces me to Khuhultteok – Korean style mini-pancakes with brown sugar in the middle.  The final stretch to Seoul seems quicker than ever and a new friendship is seeming rather likely.  I’m somewhat taken aback when she mentions my blog… I’d been wondering who my South Korea audience is so when Catfish refers to a particular blog post about being formally introduced to a gorgeous Brit, I know exactly where this conversation is headed and I’m reminded of my initial hesitance in spending time with her: The gorgeous Brit clearly liked her and not me! It’s enough reason not to be friends with someone in girl-world but Catfish has other redeeming qualities so I’m prepared to give her a second chance.

Arriving in Seoul, we bounce off the bus, eager to get to Myeong-dong for shopping.  Catfish has been here with the other South African so she takes the lead.  She confided on the bus that she’d told her mom in a previous conversation that she hopes I manage to find some clothes in Myeong-dong because she really hoped we could be friends; if I wasn’t successful, I may equate Catfish with unsuccessful shopping trips.  Assuring her that this won’t happen, we head straight for Forever 21.  I’m not familiar with this particular store since it hasn’t reached South Africa but I do know that it is a popular store in the US.  I’ve also done my homework and have seen that it usually caters to very small sizes so I’m not particularly hopeful about finding anything here. 

New Clothes

There are some fantastic clothes and it takes us nearly two hours to pour over the selection – actually, it takes Catfish about two hours to try on a variety of clothes and me about an hour to discover that there are a total of three things (other than shoes and accessories) that actually fit me in the entire store.  There’s no stronger motivation to lose weight than attempting to shop for clothes in Korea!  By the time we’ve paid for our purchases and sprinted through another store (Uniqlo), we realise that it’s nearly mid-afternoon and we’re starving.  I’m in the mood for pizza so Catfish stops a passerby and asks for directions to the nearest pizza place which happens to be Mr Pizza.

Seated at a table, we attempt to work out the menu.  I’ve only been to Mr Pizza once so I’m happy to let Catfish recommend several pizzas.  We try to order a lunch time special but we’re too late so we settle on the Shrimp King pizza with sweet potato crust.  In the interim, our “two Cokes juseyo” (with the corresponding number of fingers) results in one glass of Coke with two straws arriving at our table.  We’re amused by the misunderstanding and successfully manage to order a second Coke.  When our pizza arrives, we attack it like we haven’t eaten in days.  Delicious!

Ummm...we asked for two Cokes not one with two straws.

Our final destination for the day is Itaewon where Catfish is hoping to find a Korean soccer jersey as a gift for her soccer-loving brother back in Indiana.  While on the subway to Itaewon station, Catfish asks if I’m feeling alright since I’m looking a bit flushed.  My face is tingling a little bit and I feel a bit nauseous but I’m probably just tired.  We decide to get off the subway at Noksapyeong station and walk towards Itaewon station since we’ll pass a number of stalls on the way.  I’m feeling rather self-conscious about not being able to keep up with the pace at which Catfish is walking so I assume that I must be having an asthma attack.  While I concentrate on deep breathing, Catfish finds her soccer jersey and we’re soon entering Itaewon station to head back to the bus terminal.  We stop briefly to take cheesy photos in front of the Christmas setup which results in us just missing the train. 

Cheesy Christmas photos in Itaewon station...

While we sit and wait, I take the opportunity to find my inhaler which brings no relief.  Ironically, the possibility of my being allergic to shrimp is raised and quickly refuted – I’ve eaten shrimp before and even had one on the flight to Seoul.  Of course, this pizza was laden with the largest shrimp I’ve ever seen but that’s beside the point.  This must be an asthma attack and one that is causing my face to tingle and redden.  I feel rather melodramatic suggesting I go to the nearest hospital so we continue to debate the possible reasons for my face being so flushed that my neck and torso are also now changing colour, a slight rash that is spreading across my body, tingling in my face and the swelling that shocks me in action when I finally take a close up photo of myself while thinking that breathing is now becoming a skill rather than a basic action.   Catfish suggests finding the nearest pharmacy and we’re once again heading out of the station.  While I concentrate on breathing, she sends several requests not to collapse: After spending around US$300 today, she’s not looking forward to having to abandon her purchases in order to help someone she still doesn’t really know.

New ER
I’m grateful to have Catfish take charge yet again and she does a fantastic job of communicating to everyone who can possibly help us that “friend…sick”.  The tourist information office tells us that there’s a pharmacy just around outside of the station so that’s where we head.  Like a true American (for which I’m very grateful), Catfish enters the pharmacy and announces I need help.  The pharmacist doesn’t look too concerned while he finishes helping another customer before handing me a box of Zyrtek.  I’ve had Zyrtek before but, when Catfish tells him that I’ve taken my asthma medication, he takes the table out of my hand and tells me to go to the nearest hospital.  Address in hand, Catfish hails a taxi and gets us to Soon Chun Hyung University Hospital which happens to be only two or three kilometres down the road. 

The staff at this ER are fantastic and speak pretty good English!

As we enter the ER, laden with packages of day’s purchases, Catfish once again successfully communicates “friend…sick” which prompts the nurse to ask: “Can you breathe?” All I can do at this point is shake my head while five doctors and nurses converge on me and get me onto a bed where they then proceed to attack me with the largest needles I have ever seen in my life.  They’re also kind enough to show these needles before attempting to dig them into my resistant and very shy veins which are retreating under the current attack.  As they dig the first needle into my hand, I can’t help but flinch which results in a reprimand not to move.  I’ve already had oxygen fitted across my nose but breathing still requires all of my efforts so I have limited responses available to me – other than a childlike shriek and hiding my arm – when they show me the enormous needle that they’re about to try to stick into another vein. 

Catfish is great and uses her ‘fierce teacher’ voice to pause the sudden flurry of action and ask the doctors and nurses to give me a moment.  I’m not exactly scare of needles – I just don’t like them (particularly after the last two years of regular blood test) and I cope better when I don’t see the needles at all.  I’m not sure if they’re scare of Catfish or just annoyed but they’ve paused long enough to realise that I’m not a fan of needles.  I feel like baby as the nurse cajoles me into giving her shaking arm once again when what I really want to communicate is that the veins in my right arm are always bad for needles whereas my left arm’s veins don’t manage to run away as quickly.  After another painful needle attack, I finally have enough control over my breathing to communicate this, blood is drawn and I’m soon connected to a drip with some weird combination of fluids that I neither know and probably couldn’t pronounce anyway.

During this dramatic sequence of events – that probably only took about 10 minutes – Catfish is tasked with filling in all of the forms for me.  She’s known me less than 24 hours but sure, why not.  Fortunately, I’m neurotic enough to carry most important documentation with me whenever I go further than just the other side of Gunsan so it’s pretty easy for her to find all of my information in my purse.  She’s also managed to communicate essential medical history to the doctors and nurses and phones her fantastic co-teacher to assist us in translating ‘shrimp’ since we’re both fairly certain that I’m allergic to our lunch.  It’s incredible that it’s been less than an hour since eating that delicious pizza!

Once the forms are filled in and the drip connected, it’s a waiting game.  The nurses tell us that I’m likely to be in the ER for at least six hours which means only being discharged at around midnight.  Realising that we’re probably not going to make it back to Gunsan tonight, we start working on a Plan B: Finding accommodation late at night in an area that we don’t really know is an interesting task.  Although we’ve spent a couple of days in Seoul, we’ve never had to sort out accommodation and we’re not entirely sure where anything is.  Fortunately, NZ2 comes through for us and starts sending out SOS text messages to his sister and friends in Seoul.  Within an hour, we have so many choices of possible places to stay and I can breathe normally once more so we settle into a fairly lively conversation in the otherwise empty ER.  The doctors and nurses understand enough English to probably get the gist of what we’re saying and we’re a little self-conscious of the fact that, at this point, we’re just hanging out in the ER, killing time while the doctors ‘observe’ me for any other reactions and Catfish and I ‘bond’. 

Informing me that I am now allergic to shrimp - which I've already figured out - I'm discharged at 22:00 so that we can try to make it back to Gunsan tonight.  We're in such a rush to get back to the bus terminal that we're already halfway up the hill to Itaewon station when I suddenly remember that I didn't collect my script from the hospital's pharmacy. Heading back to the hospital, we re-enter the ER and ask for directions to the pharmacy.  The nurse is so helpful that she tells us to leave our shopping bags on a chair next to her while we get my script.  With the script in hand, we thank the ER staff for being so helpful and kind and having done everything in English.  We're running out of time so we decide to take a taxi to the station which proves to be more difficult than we'd initially anticipated.

While we attempt to communicate our destination the driver, he takes us on a scenic night tour of sketchy Itaewon while asking Catfish if she's Russian - i.e. if she's a prostitute.  Catfish is blonde-haired, blue-eyed and gorgeous like many Russians and a lot of prostitutes are apparently Russian. Wondering where in Itaewon we are, we're relieved to spot the subway station directly ahead of us.  We rush out of the taxi and have just enough time to take a commemorative photo of the two of us on the platform before we're finally on the subway to the bus terminal.  Incredibly, we're going to make it just in time to catch the last bus home.

Catfish and me on the platform after my latest ER trip.

Bounding up the escalators at the bus terminal, Catfish heads to the ticket booth while I attempt to buy some snack for the bus since we don't have time for dinner.  The news is devastating: There's only one seat available on the last bus home so we're stuck in Seoul for the night.  Even if we manage to get a bus back to Jeonju or even Iksan, we're not sure if we'll be able to get back to Gunsan until tomorrow morning anyway.  Dismayed at our luck, we move onto Plan C since all of the places we have addresses for in Plan B are closer to Iatewon than the bus terminal.  The person at the Information desk tells us that there is a hotel on the top floor of the terminal; what he doesn't tell us is that it's the Marriott Hotel which costs around US$350 per night.  Killing two birds with one stone, Catfish phones the gorgeous Brit over whom we have bonded and he informs us that there are several Love Motels outside of the bus terminal which are cheap.  Neither of us has been to a Love Motel before so we're not even entirely sure what to look for but we're fairly certain that it'll be easy to spot one so we exit the terminal rather confidently.
New Embarrassing Experiences

Outside of the terminal, we can’t see any hotels so Catfish bravely asks a passerby for help.  Unfortunately, she chooses a man who doesn’t speak English but she speaks loudly enough to catch the attention of a couple who are also passing by.  The woman can speak English and offers a few suggestions including a jimjilbang which is the cheapest option.  It’s ironic that Catfish and I had been discussing jimjilbangs on the bus ride to Seoul – now she’s asking me if I’m okay with spending the night in a jimjilbang.  I’m so tired at this point that I agree and we’re soon giggling our way through deserted passageways leading back to the bus terminal in the general direction of the jimjilbang.  Every time we see someone, we ask them if we’re heading in the right direction for the jimjilbang. The reactions of those we are is generally surprise, amusement or an embarrassed laugh and here’s why…

Jimjilbangs are the Korean equivalent of the Japanese onsen.  Jimjilbangs are public bathhouses where Koreans go to soak in a bath (since most apartments only have sink showers) but you can also have what I’ve been told is a really thorough and great massage in these bathhouses – while butt-naked, I must add – and just generally hang out and relax or sleep here.  They offer cheap accommodation, lockers in which to store your belongings, provide pajamas and are convenient.  If you’re not comfortable with nudity, however, this is not the place to go.  I can’t believe we’re heading to a jimjilbang where taking the hot shower that I so desperately crave at this point means getting naked in front of several dozen strangers.  Considering I’m larger than the average Korean woman, I’m not looking forward to showing my cellulite and fat rolls next to their seemingly flawless bodies!

By the time we finally get to bed, we’re not yet exhausted enough to go to sleep immediately.  We’ve found two empty patches of ground in a passage way and laugh over the absurdity of the day’s events before drifting in an out of sleep.  We’re conscious of several Korean people pausing beside us as they walk down this particular passage and we’re fairly certain that there aren’t usually too many foreigners in this particular jimijilbang.  By 7:00am, I’m eager to leave so I wake Catfish and we manage to make it onto the 8:00am bus home where our friendship has been sealed over a crazy 12 hours between an ER and getting naked in front of several strangers….

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